Jun 17 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part I)

(Part I: pp. 1-78.)

Of all the reviews I’ve read thus far, only Joshua Rothman’s profile in The New Yorker last month of Rod Dreher and his latest book The Benedict Optiona Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017, NY: Sentinel) explained the context of the book in its relation to his previous ones.

There has been much criticism, most of it unfair, about the book. Perhaps because:

“It is the talent of our age and nation to turn things of the greatest importance into ridicule.”

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)[1]

And:

“The world is ashamed of being virtuous.”

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) [2]

Or maybe I’m being overly sympathetic toward Dreher and not enough toward the criticism of him because:

“Almost nothing is inherently miserable, unless you think it is.”

Boethius (480-524 AD) [3]

And:

“We identify ourselves with the under dog, just as we always think of ourselves as more oppressed than oppressing.”

Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) [4]

So there is no need for me to engage in a typical book review, which I have no habit and little experience of doing anyway, because, in  general, I believe:

“Every man, as a member of the commonwealth, ought to be content with the possession of his own opinion in private, without perplexing his neighbour or disturbing the public.”

–Jonathan Swift[5]

Instead I can only compare Dreher’s book to thing’s I’ve recently read, including the above-mentioned criticism.

In his summary of Christian history in the West, Dreher mentions:

“The [Protestant] Reformers quickly discovered that casting off Rome’s authority solved one problem but created another.” [6]

And I wonder: if the Benedict Option does indeed solve the problem it states in its subtitle, will solving that problem simply create other problems? For often when we think we’ve solved one of society’s problems, all we’ve done is pass the buck and given ourselves a new set of problems. Perhaps we’re enchanted by the novelty of new problems, but on the other hand, there is no such thing as a problem-free life. So an arresting question begins to emerge early in the book and it is a question of balance. It has something to do with Emersonian compensation:

For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly. For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something….

There is always some levelling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same ground with all others….

There is a crack in every thing God has made. It would seem, there is always this vindictive circumstance stealing in at unawares, even into the wild poesy in which the human fancy attempted to make bold holiday, and to shake itself free of the old laws, — this back-stroke, this kick of the gun, certifying that the law is fatal; that in nature nothing can be given, all things are sold….

We cannot stay amid the ruins. Neither will we rely on the new.[7]

If the Benedict Option succeeds in rebelling against modernity[8] (something daring, audacious, and ambitious enough for at least some non-Christians to perhaps champion for their own interests), what will the counterbalance be? Resentment? Respect? Utter apathy? Intrigue?

More thoughts on the book to come.

UPDATE: See “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II).”

NOTES

[1] Swift, Jonathan. “Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff.” 1709. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. NY: Oxford World Classics. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Angus Ross and David Woolley. 1984. p. 216.

[2] Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 1756–1767. NY: Oxford World Classics. Edited by Ian Campbell Ross. 1983. 1998.  VIII, xxvii, p. 468.

[3] Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy 524 A.D. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 2008.  II, iv, prose, (2008) p. 40.

[4] Murray, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition in Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1927. p. 61.

[5] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. p. 185.

[6] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christian in a Post-Christian Nation. NY: Sentinel. 2017. p. 32.

[7] Emerson, “Compensation,” Essays: First Series. Boston, MA. 1841.

[8] Dreher writes:

Young men taking up a tradition of prayer, liturgy, and ascetic communal life that dates back to the early church—and doing so with such evident joy? It’s not supposed to happen in these times. But here they are: a sin of contradiction to modernity. (The Benedict Option p. 76)


Nov 10 2016

An East Texas Example of the Benedict Option?

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In Path of a Modern South: Northeast Texas between Reconstruction and the Great Depression (2001), Texas A&M Professor Walter Buenger writes:

Yet the Churches of Christ, unlike the closely related Disciples of Christ, never aligned with the Klan or with prohibition movements….

Changes in church size reflected the pressures and opportunities of the 1920s. During the early part of the decade, the number of black and white Baptists declined slightly. Pentecostal groups such as the Church of the Nazarene, another organization with small rural churches, also declined. Black Methodists, white Methodists, and Presbyterians increased slightly, especially in Bowie and Lamar counties. (The Presbyterians were more traditionally urban than Baptists. Methodists fell somewhere in between.) The highest rate of increase, however, came in the membership of the Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ (Christian Church). Again, they did best in Bowie and Lamar, the counties with the two largest urban centers in the region. By 1926 the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ both roughly matched the Presbyterians, with each claiming about 5 percent of the region’s church members. Baptists, despite their slight decline, still attracted almost 50 percent of all church members, while Methodists made up just over 30 percent….

Subtle social differences existed between the Disciples and the Churches of Christ. The Disciples, as their greater willingness to cooperate with other denominations demonstrated, integrated more easily into the middle-class life of the towns and villages where they built their churches. The Churches of Christ remained more rural, did not depend upon an educated ministry, and drew from those who wanted to follow their own moral code instead of being bound by prohibition law or other measures that regulated society. While generally regarded as conservative, members of the Churches of Christ as well as some Pentecostal groups were among the most ardent backers of socialism in pre-World War I Texas and Oklahoma. They belonged to the old-time insurgents who resented external efforts that forced conformity to the middle-class rules of town-dwelling Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. [1]

There is a lot to chew on in this quotation (and from a lot of different angles). But it does seem that the Churches of Christ, in the particular time and place described, offer an example akin to the Benedict Option, as Rod Dreher has defined it:

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.

Temperance/Prohibition was a moral goal of the Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, but the former chose not to make it a political goal, unlike the latter. And neither church “ran to the hills.”

NOTES
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[1] Buenger, Walter L. Path of a Modern South: Northeast Texas between Reconstruction and the Great Depression. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 2001. pp. 207, 234–35.

For more on the Benedict Option click here.

 


Jul 27 2016

Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part II: Beyond Democracy Lies Caritas’cracy

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(Piazza Navona, Rome)

Theory of Caritas

The will of a community reflects the collective intentionality of its members.[1]

The will of a community is often, but not always, expressed in the language of the community.[2]

Through language, a community treats its members sometimes as individuals, sometimes as objects.[3]

An institution is realized when a community uses language in an organized pattern with precedence (such as an established tradition) to achieve, express, and reflect the will of the community.[4]

When a community, through its language, treats its members as individuals (as with memorializing veterans, first-responders,[5] and athletes, or raising money for a kid with cancer), the community practices an I–You mode of discourse and establishes an institution that treats its members as individuals.

When a community, through its language, treats its members as objects (as with voting lists and tax rolls and redlining), the community practices the I­–It mode of discourse and establishes an institution that treats its members as objects.

A community needs institutions that both treat its members as individuals and treats them as objects.

Practice of Caritas

In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2014), Rod Dreher writes about a conversation with his brother-in-law where they discussed the community institution of caritas, the caritas demonstrated by Dreher’s parents:

“Your mom and dad never meet a stranger,” [Mike Leming] said. “Once they get to know you, you become family right off, especially if you help them with something. Whatever’s theirs is yours.”[6]

For the Drehers, the charity received from a stranger grants that stranger automatic entry into the Drehers’ community—so that the stranger becomes no longer a stranger but a familiar. The cost of entry into this community is neither an indulgence to pay for prior debts, nor a bribe to pay for present greed, nor a desert to satisfy modern members of the meritocracy. Perhaps the institution of the Drehers caritas could be called a caritascracy.

This institutional mechanism of caritas’cracy functions in the I–You mode of language. It is achieved when one individual charitably encounters another. It occurs when we speak and listen to each other rather than over or at each other.

No matter the neologism, the institution of the Drehers charity (and their response to the charity of others), confronts one of principle anxieties of C. S. Lewis’s life: the resentment that comes with any in-group/out-group dynamic. As Lewis lectured his students:

When you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the Ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. It is even possible that the School Ring was almost in touch with a Masters’ Ring. You were beginning, in fact, to pierce through the skins of the onion….

One of the most dominant elements [of Life] is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside…. This desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action…. [But] As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left….

You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in”. And that is a pleasure than [sic., that] cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been stalled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old Ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavour to enter the new one.[7]

When the Dreher’s daughter Ruthie dies, the wonderful life she lived as an individual made her death from terminal illness all the more meaningful to the community:

It was an evening of beer drinking, country dancing, and merrymaking, the likes of which there had been far too little of since that awful day in February. For Ruthie this was an It’s a Wonderful Life moment as the people of the parish took the opportunity to show her and tell her what a difference she had made in their lives. At the end of the evening, over a thousand people had come through the gates, and the people of our little country parish had raised forty-three thousand dollars for Ruthie Leming. “This is how it’s supposed to be,” an old friend said to me that night, looking out over the crowd. “This is what folk are supposed to do for each other.”[8]

This is what Buber was getting at when he realized the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[9]

How must a community thrive if it must use institutions to achieve its intentions—when to use institutions means encountering and engaging with the inherent resentment of all in-group/out-group dynamics? As Dreher reminds us, we cannot recreate Eden,[10] but the caritas’cracy of the elder Drehers may point us the way forward.

NOTES

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[1] For philosopher John Searle, meaning is derived intentionality (Freedom and Neurobiology NY: Columbia UP. 2007. p. 8). And: “Intentionality essentially involves the representation of conditions of satisfaction,” (“Language and Social Ontology,” Theory and Society. Vol. 37. No. 5. (October 2008.) 443–59 at 445).

[2] See Peirce:

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol. 2. 1868. 140–157. (http://www.peirce.org/writings/p27.html.))

Compare de Saussure:

The signal, in relation to the idea it represents, may seem to be freely chosen. However, from the point of view of the linguistic community, the signal is imposed rather than freely chosen. Speakers are not consulted about its choice. Once the language has selected a signal, it cannot be freely replaced by any other. There appears to be something rather contradictory about this. It is a kind of linguistic Hobson’s choice. What can be chosen is already determined in advance. No individual is able, even if he wished, to modify in any way a choice already established in the language. Nor can the linguistic community exercise its authority to change even a single word. The community, as much as the individual, is bound in its language. (Course in General Linguistics. edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with the collaboration of Albert Riedlinger; translated and annotated by Roy Harris. London: G. Duckworth. 1983. p. 71.)

And compare Searle:

A way to come to see this point is to ask oneself, what is the difference between regarding an object as an instance of linguistic communication and not so regarding it? One crucial difference is this. When I take a noise or a mark on a piece of paper to be an instance of linguistic communication, as a message, one of the things I must assume is that the noise or mark as a natural phenomenon like the wind in the trees or a stain on the paper, I exclude it from the class of linguistic communication, even though the noise or mark may be indistinguishable from spoken or written words. Furthermore, not only must I assume the noise or mark to have been produced as a result of intentional behavior, but I must also assume that the intentions are of a very special kind peculiar to speech acts. (Speech Acts: an Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge UP. 1969§ 1.4, pp. 16–17.)

[3] Based on the work of Martin Buber. Buber’s I–You and I–It modes of linguistic discourse are two examples of collective intentionality. According to Buber, the world itself is not twofold but the human world is twofold for humans. Con artists hook their victims by speaking to the mark as if in I–You mode, when all along they were playing the language game of the I–It mode on the victim (Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. I § 1).

The I–You mode of discourse marks a relation between two humans being; this mode expresses the ratio between two individuals. One human does not divide the other, but the two humans stand in dynamic reciprocity to one another (I and Thou I § 5).

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness (Buber, The Knowledge of Man: a Philosophy of the Interhuman. Translated by Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith. Harper & Row: NY. 1966. p. 69). Buber points out how we speak over each other rather than to each other—we must practice directness rather than “speechifying” and placating to “a fictitious court of appeal,” (Knowledge of Man 78–79). Moreover:

Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity. (Knowledge of Man 84)

A person becomes an I through the You mode of discourse (I and Thou I § 28). Or as Gregory Bateson once put it, “It takes two to know one,” (Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 113).

[4] Compare Searle:

Institutions always consist in constitutive rules (practices, procedures) that have the form X counts as Y in context C… The Y term imposes a new status on the phenomenon named by the X term, and the new status carries with it a function that cannot be performed just by virtue of the intrinsic physical features named by the X term. The function requires the status in order that it be performed, and the status requires collective intentionality, including a continued acceptance of the status with its corresponding function. (The Construction of Social Reality. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1995. p. 114).

Compare Searle critic Philia Mfundo Msimang:

Whereas singular intentionality is generally construed as a unidirectional force from the agent to the world (viz., imposing one’s will on a state of affairs), collective intentionality is a bidirectional force from the point of view of any participating agent because it both guides and restricts each agent’s action while, at the same time, being bolstered and influenced by each respective agent’s own actions. In this context, individual intentionality is derivative of the group or collective intentionality….

All social institutions are founded on a symmetrical agreement (by which I mean mutual recognition), and this entails not only that people have to hold the same intentionality but that they must hold this intentionality fundamentally in relation to one another’s intentionality. What I mean by this is that there is no sense to collective intentionality outside its relation to, and satisfaction by, another individual’s intentionality. Collective intentionality cannot be satisfied by respective individual intentionalities but has its conditions of satisfaction defined by a symmetrical relationship between intentionalities. (“Living in One World: Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics.” Signs and Society. Vol. 2. No. 2. (Fall 2014.) 173–202 at 181–82.)

[5] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013.p. 45.

[6] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 47.

[7] Lewis, C.S. “The Inner Ring – Memorial oration at King’s College, London, 1944.” They Asked for a Paper. London: G. Bles. 1962.” pp. 141–142, 145, 147, and 148.

[8] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 135. See also later (200–03) when Ruthie’s piety prevented her funeral from becoming a dreary affair and instead rendered it into a celebration.

[9] Buber, Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[10] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 265.


Jan 20 2016

TWO INTERESTING THINGS TO READ

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From an interview with Sanford Levinson, Professor at the University of Texas School of Law, promoting his new book about reading the Federalist Papers:

The central problem, I am convinced, is that most Americans—and I’m tempted to say especially those who consider themselves “liberals,” “progressives,” of “leftists”—are scared to death of their fellow citizens and most certainly do not believe they have the capacity to engage in intelligent discussion of our constitutional order. That may be true, of course, but if it is, democracy—and not merely the prospects for a new convention—is doomed.

And from Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology blog, some interesting thoughts on the Benedict Option and implications of its application:

If you ask my friend and colleague David McAnulty about the biggest obstacle facing American Christianity his answer might surprise you.

According to David, this is the church’s biggest obstacle:

Youth sports.

I think David has a point…. Families just don’t have time for church anymore.


Jan 12 2016

Benedict Options and New Republics

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There’s not much to add all the commentary about The New Republic being put out to pasture. Ezra Klein has about the best summary of it all that I’ve come across, and have noting that, “Now [Chris] Hughes is putting the magazine back up for sale.” Klein goes on to quote Hughes’ letter to his soon to be ex-employees:

I will be the first to admit that when I took on this challenge nearly four years ago, I underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate,” Hughes wrote in an article that, oddly, was published on Medium rather than the New Republic’s web site.

Klein then observes:

TNR’s problems have been largely being laid at Hughes’s doorstep. And, to some degree, that’s fair. Transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company is hard, but it’s not as hard as Hughes made it look….

Hughes believed his charge was to make TNR a viable web publication, in a world where viability — and, arguably, influence — requires web traffic. That meant publishing more, publishing faster, and publishing the kinds of quick hits and aggregations that help build audience on the cheap.

In a strange sentence on his Medium post, Hughes writes, “Even though our search for a workable business model has come up short, we have shown that digital journalism isn’t at odds with quality and depth.” But if digital journalism of quality and depth is at odds with a workable business model, then digital journalism of quality and depth won’t survive.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of lessons might be learned from this by those who choose the Benedict Option.  Where Klein writes–“Transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company is hard“–one can imagine Rod Dreher & Co. similarly observing:

….transitioning an old and traditional American church into a twenty-first century life-changing, life-preserving institution will be hard……

 


Oct 21 2015

Elmer Gantry’s Theology & the Benedict Option

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Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option seeks to establish clusters of Christian communities instead of cloisters. The Ben Opters have two enemies: Secular Liberal Purists and Moral Therapeutic Deists.

I agree with C. S. Lewis that atheism is too easy, but I severely disagree that simplicity in theology is somehow the work of the devil (Mere Christianity. NY: Macmillan. 1944. Reprint 1952. 46-48). Rather simplicity is the way to wisdom—just as brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet II, ii)—but Lewis doesn’t address this point.

Yet once all the orthodox-in-name-only have been purged (or politely asked to leave) the cluster sought by Dreher and others, how will the remaining Ben Opters handle the Elmer Gantrys who will inevitably emerge from among them?

Take a funny scene from Sinclair Lewis’s novel from 1927:

“And of course, Brother Fislinger, you believe in infant damnation.”

Eddie explained, “No; that’s not a Baptist doctrine.”

“You–you–” The good doctor choked, tugged at his collar, panted and wailed: “It’s not a Baptist doctrine? You don’t believe in infant damnation?”

“W-why, no–”

“Then God help the Baptist church and the Baptist doctrine! God help us all, in these unregenerate days, that we should be contaminated by such infidelity!” Eddie sweat, while the doctor patted his plump hands and agonized: “Look you here, my brother! It’s very simple. Are we not saved by being washed in the blood of the Lamb, and by that alone, by his blessed sacrifice alone?”

“W-why, yes, but–”

“Then either we are washed white, and saved, or else we are not washed, and we are not saved! That’s the simple truth, and all weakenings and explanations and hemming and hawing about this clear and beautiful truth are simply of the devil, brother! And at what moment does a human being, in all his inevitable sinfulness, become subject to baptism and salvation? At two months? At nine years? At sixteen? At forty-seven? At ninety-nine? No! The moment he is born! And so if he be not baptized, then he must burn in hell forever. What does it say in the Good Book? ‘For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.’ It may seem a little hard of God to fry beautiful little babies, but then think of the beautiful women whom he loves to roast there for the edification of the saints! Oh, brother, brother, now I understand why Jimmy here, and poor Elmer, are lost to the faith! It’s because professed Christians like you give them this emasculated religion! Why, it’s fellows like you who break down the dike of true belief, and open a channel for higher criticism and sabellianism and nymphomania and agnosticism and heresy and Catholicism and Seventh-day Adventism and all those horrible German inventions! Once you begin to doubt, the wicked work is done! Oh, Jim, Elmer, I told you to listen to our friend here, but now that I find him practically a free-thinker–”

Theology will not save Americans from being themselves, just as it could not save a genius Jew from Poland like Solomon Maimon:

Originally the Cabbalah [that is, “tradition”] was nothing but psychology, physics, morals, politics, and such sciences, represented by means of symbols and hieroglyphs in fables and allegories, the occult meaning of which was disclosed only to those who were competent to understand it. By and by, however, perhaps as the result of many revolutions, this occult meaning was lost, and the signs were taken for the things signified. But as it was easy to perceive that these signs necessarily had meant something, it was left to the imagination to invent an occult meaning which had long been lost. The remotest analogies between signs and things were seized, till at last the Cabbalah degenerated into an art of madness according to method, or a systematic science resting on conceits. The big promise of its design, to work effects on nature at pleasure, the lofty strain and the pomp with which it announces itself, have naturally an extraordinary influence on minds of the visionary type, that are unenlightened by the sciences and especially by a thorough philosophy. (Autobiography, Translated from the German, with Additions and Notes, by J. Clark Murray. Boston: Cupples & Hurd. 1888, p. 94)

Or as Walter Kaufmann once put it:

Theology is a misguided attempt to make poetry scientific, and the result is neither science nor poetry. (Critique of Religion and Philosophy. NY: Doubleday. 1958. §58, p. 238.)


Oct 7 2015

Communities Who Bring about Suffering & Loss Will Bear Suffering & Loss

bookbread typewriterSome new notes from Rod Dreher:

Whatever Benedict Option communities end up being as we pass through all this, they are going to have to bear witness to suffering and loss, in a way we [in the West] have not had to do for a great long time.

This may well be true, but it seems to skirt around the possibility that plenty of late 20 and early 21st century Americans were born into religious communities, bore witness to suffering and loss, and endured their own sufferings and losses brought on by that very community, and are now no longer interested in living in or perpetuating that kind of community.

Communities who bring about suffering and loss will bear suffering and loss. In other words, it takes one to know one. Communities are made of individuals who know each other; communitas reaches beyond known individuals, as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has recently pointed out:

Anthropologist Victor Turner notes a common type of movement in pre-modern times, which he says is from “community” to “communitas.” The movement occurs periodically in response to the needs of economic exchange, but not only that. It is also prompted by the desire of the people in a local community—say, a village—for a larger sense of who they are. That larger sense of self villagers find in the market town—the “communitas” of acquaintances and strangers.*

*“Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human” in Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 106

 

 


Oct 5 2015

Beyond Flimsy; Beyond Fundamentalism

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Today at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher gives readers a pop quiz:

How do we find the middle path between these two extremes? The Benedict Option is, of course, in part a reaction against loosey-goosey Christianity, so I don’t have a big worry that versions of the Ben Op would be at risk of being too lax and liberal. The real concern I have is that we would go too far, and create institutions or communities that would be too controlling or otherwise unhealthy. A secondary, lesser concern is that fear of fundamentalism would be so overwhelming that the nascent Ben Op community would fail to create the practices and structures that would be effective in accomplishing what the Ben Op is supposed to do.

He then issues a call for ideas and suggestions. My response is that perhaps consulting Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” (1967) would provide some understanding of the balance necessary for the BenOp. The book, and later a terrific movie (1981) adaptation, show the balancing act of friendship between two boys, one Orthodox Jewish, the other a Hassidic. Various cultural conflicts and misunderstandings between the more “liberal” Orthodox way of life and the more”fundamentalist” way of the Hassidim are explored and explained.

 

Actual Jewish readers and filmgoers may rightly criticize Poktok’s art as utterly middlebrow and overly sentimental–but for a post-churchgoing millennial from rural Central Texas, I found much to learn and think about in Potok’s book and the movie based upon it.

 


Jul 31 2015

The Benedict Option: Cheerleading from the Sideline

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Over at The American Conservative Rod Dreher, who has previously written how the upcoming generations have lost faith and trust in all institutions, has now written a post showing that some inside the clergy and clerisy can properly diagnose their own symptoms, so perhaps the Benedict Option is the proper remedy for cleaning house.

As part of the under-40 crowd, I confess to being completely weary of all bureaucracy, a weariness I suspect comes from being institutionalized in childhood by small town Texas teachers, preachers, and coaches.

The feeling of graduating university made me understand the lines from the old time hymn “like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away”—it was (and remains) particularly refreshing to be able to read books of one’s own choosing—at one’s own pace––rather than being assigned a text on the whims of a bureaucrat and having to rush through it.

Now as an adult (or at least one in disguise) I choose to opt out of the idolatry of religion (in its old, etymological sense of “binding” as well as its modern meanings of “just another bureaucracy” and “authority-for-authority’s-sake”) and am attempting to opt in to authentic encounters in the I-You mode of discourse used by individuals while, at the same time, attempting to resist the I-It mode of “discord” practiced by all modern institutions (schools, religions, hospitals, sports, national media).

The BenOp may not be for me, but from the sidelines I’m willing to cheer for anything that actively deconstructs any kind of bureaucracy in its resistance to that bureaucracy.


Jul 16 2015

5 Benedict Options for Single Folk: an Open Reply to Rod Dreher

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Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has tirelessly been exploring for himself and imploring other orthodox (or authentic?) American Christians to consider the Benedict Option–yet for all his efforts he continues to be hounded by friendly and hostile readers to explain, explain, explain what such an Option might mean.

 

Dreher keeping writing and writing; yet among him and his scattered supporters, scant attention has been directed toward what a Benedict Option might mean for single folks in America. In the optimistic-secularist spirit of David Hume, I offer five suggestions that I have been trying to implement in my own life for the past several years:

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of all pet husbandry, adoption, and ownership and opting in for compassion and caretaking for stray and needy human beings in my community.

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of professional, collegiate, and local sports; opting in to binge-reading and other library labors.

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of religion (in its old, etymological sense of “binding” as well as its modern meanings of “just another bureaucracy” and “authority-for-authority’s-sake”) and opting in to authentic encounters in the I-You mode of discourse used by individuals while resisting the I-It mode of “discord” practiced by all modern institutions.

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of the telescopic view of national politics and celebrity (and media thereof) and opting in toward a radical, microscopic focus on politics, law, and arts-&-entertainment strictly at state and local levels.

 

  1. Opting out of being a proactive consumer of Big Pharma and Big Farming and Big Business Dieting; opting in for cooking my own food when I can; fasting when I should; and giving radically generous gratuities when eating out.

 

While man cannot live in a continual Sabbath, he should not resign himself to a flat two-dimensional life from which he escapes on rare occasions. The place of the sacred is not a house of God, nor church, synagogue, or seminary, nor one day in seven, and the span of the sacred is much shorter than twenty-four hours. The Sabbath is every day, several times a day.

–Walter Kaufmann, “Prologue to I and Thou p. 30.