Thursday, April 13, 2017

On Miswriting The Benedict Option

Benedict Option
The Benedict Option is not like this at all, except to get you to buy it.

You can't judge a book by its cover.

Or its contents.

Or reviews of its contents, by people who have bought the book, read what's in it, and told you what's in it. They might have misread it. So who can you trust?

When it comes to this book, the only person you can trust is you and Rod. And, frankly, you probably put too much trust in yourself as well.

You see, Rod Dreher's a professional writer, but are you a professional reader? Of course not; there's no such thing. So you probably misread it, too, whether or not you think you "get" the Benedict Option.

As George Weigel says,

There has been a lot of talk about a “Benedict Option” recently, and while no one seems to know precisely what that might mean, the Ben-Op, at least as advertised, does suggest a certain withdrawal from public life for the sake of forming intentional communities of character.

But there's a 50/50 chance that George Weigel misread the book as well, and since reading Ben-Op-type books is his business, what chance do you have of getting it right?

That's right, flatfoot - none at all.

So why even take the chance of embarrassing yourself by becoming confused over details you will almost certainly misread and misunderstand? Just leave the book out of it entirely.

Instead, send an Interac e-transfer for $14.98 (the Amazon hardcover price) with the subject line "I get the Benedict Option!" to


Now, you, too, can be officially on record as someone who "gets" the Benedict Option, but, even better, you have now perfectly insulated yourself from the all too likely charge of having misread it.

UPDATE: A law professor at one of the country’s elite law schools - I'm going to call him "Professor Kingsfield" to preserve his privacy - just emailed me to ask,

But, Keith, this misreading no one immune from it? What about Rod Dreher himself? When we read his blog, which amounts to little more than links to his readings of others stitched together with his commentary - is it possible he could be guilty of misreading, too?

The professor was clearly rattled. After all, like Wile E. Coyote and his precipitous dash off the cliff, the good scholar knew he had just opened a void of nihilism beneath his feet, one where no one ever read things correctly, and the world was nothing but a compound horror of misreading piled upon misreading.

But I was happy to reassure him: only other people misread things. As with the research behind his Benedict Option, and going back to the very first note he copied from a kindergarten mate to stick on Mam and Paw's refrigerator, Rod Dreher always gets it right.


  1. It takes a remarkable lack of self-awareness for an author to proclaim, on nearly a daily basis, that yet another reviewer has misread his book (or, worse yet, that the reviewer is lying and in fact didn't read it). I'd think an author would fear this type of review more than an I-hated-it review, because it reflects a profound lack of skill on the part of the author. The self-aware author would (after wondering what went wrong in his writing) would hope that as few people as possible knew about such reviews.

    In this case, the point of the book has had its own FAQ for a year and a half, and many more words since, and still people don't understand what it is. And the prestige of those who don't get it is growing (George Weigel!). Yet Dreher has the need to respond in real time to these reviews, flying into the teeth of all this evidence that either his idea or his skill is wanting. Incredible.

    1. At this point reaction to Rod's BO seems, to me, to be breaking down more or less evenly into one of three categories:

      1. Scholars, who say, "Hmmm, let's see what we've got here...wait, what!?!

      2. Collegial religious pundits who take off of Dreher's lead with a competing or contradictory Option of their own, thus diluting his market while also critiquing him.

      3. The League of Extraordinary Dreherymen, like the Scot McKnight Dreher throws his arms around in the piece I'm mocking, who ends his most recent thoughtful slurpitude with that most sought after of benedictions:

      "To order, click through one of these links:"

      I'm afraid dependably scoring only one out of three isn't going to move the product as anything more than just another Dreher curiosity, and having an outstanding agent who can book you on Tucker Carlson, Face the Nation and elswhere may end up being more of a liability than an asset if it informs even more of the world what a sloppy, opportunistic hustler they ultimately discover you to be.

      It doesn't take a genius, nor even simply a passively obedient BO book reader, to grasp that, to puncture just one of Dreher's balloons that I know of for certain (and there are no doubt others, probably in those critical scholarly reviews), just as one can't be both a man and a woman, one can't both be disillusioned by politics and consider it no longer relevant and be politically active - even if one declares so in a book.

      If one is really politically active - not simply "praying for our polititians" (which is...duhhh...prayer, not politics) - one by definition still has faith that one's political efforts through the political process will bear fruit equal to the effort; one has not yet resigned oneself that the culture war is over and lost. If, instead, one merely mopes on a blog about how terrible all politics is, one is not being politically active, but only whining.

      This fraud of "culture-war-is-lost-but-active-in-politics-'cause-I-wrote-it" is simply empty rhetoric in the service of trying to have it both ways, to be followed by browbeating the reader when he objects to the Three Card Monte shuffle just perpetrated upon him.

    2. The "Reply" link after the first comment above (pik's at 4/18 10:29am) isn't working for me for some reason. Pik, I wish you'd submit that comment or a version thereof to Rod. Who cares if he doesn't publish it--I just want him to read it.

  2. Rod names his book after a man famous for establishing monasteries. And Rod makes a big show of going to one of those monasteries, on his foodie tourism junkets. And now there is a monastery on the cover too.

    But, no, it is a "misreading" to say his book advocates the establishment of intentional communities. Because that is a position that, while hardly indefensible, does need a defense. One that Rod is not prepared to make. Of course, at the same time, who would care about a book with a name like "No Particular Option," which called for nothing more than a strengthening of existing institutions and an encouragement more rigorous practices?

    Nobody. So Rod needs the mystique, the frisson, and the impression of advocating something radical, to move the product. But he can't be bothered to actually defend anything radical. Or even clearly articulate it.

    1. It's worse than that. To maximize his sales, Rod wants to be in the business of selling a floor wax and a dessert topping. You see, the Benedict Option is both intentional communitarian and just a boy and his family in Baton Rouge for the church and all that great food. The Benedict Option is both resignedly apolitical and and politically active.

      And, hoping for a little greater distribution sweetness, shills like Scot McKnight are happy to chuck any principles they might otherwise have and play along.

      And so, to continue, the Benedict Option is both ______ and ______...

  3. Nice comment by "Colonel Blimp" at TAC:

    "Naming the book after the man most associated with monastic withdrawal really doesn’t help matters if you don’t want people to think you advocate outright withdrawal from the world. The name’s the game, mate.

    "You have said that you are essentially urging traditional parish and Christian family life as it would have been lived in previous ages. This is not at all the same thing as the monastic experience. Not at all. They are clean different things, as all the monks that have ever lived could have told you. Collapsing the two, or merging the language associated with them, mangles both forms of Christian living into an inchoate mush that smacks of hipster LARPing and sentimentality. You cannot be a semi-monk or have a semi-withdrawal from the world; the Bruderhof or the Amish are who they are precisely because they have put a genuine barrier between themselves and the world, something which I believe you are not pushing. One cannot then pick and choose aspects of their way of life and expect it to work well in a different context. I think that is why some of your more thoughtful reviewers are bemused by what precisely you are advocating."

    1. I see the "genuine barrier" stuff as dispositive. There is no half way. You either join the monastery, kibbutz, commune, or whatever, or you don't. If it is just single folks and families trying to be more thorough and consistent Christians, that is fine, I guess, but why conflate it with living in an intentional community? A real intentional community is not "LARPing," as the man said. You can't just take your ball and go home, if things don't go your way. Because your "home" is not a single person/nuclear family dwelling that you own or lease, and where you can say..."You know what, you are all full of it and this is a bunch of crap, I'm not dealing with you anymore...." any time you feel like it. Rather, your home is the community. If Rod feels like folks living in such communities is essential to preserve Western Christianity in the "coming Dark Ages" or current "barbarism" or whatever the formulation of gloom and doom du jour, then he should say so, and defend that claim.

      But Mr. Yes and No can't do that. So he hints at it, and more than hints at it, but then cries "misreading!" if anyone takes him seriously.

  4. There's just something unique and very odd about our bitchy, whining, very different fop-Benedict Working Boy's response to his critics, as if by the attempted intimidation technique of loudly punching back at anyone who doesn't embrace his BO he will somehow be able to force it into acceptance as Christian intellectual currency. Do any other writers in his genre - Esolen, Chaput - behave this way?

    One sees the effects of this in a lot of the middle ground, clerics and academics who can't quite square the ideational contradictions but for the life of them do not want to bring down the Wrath of Rod the Loud on their little patch, and so they end up murmur-reviewing: "on the one hand, on the other hand, all in all interesting questions, we'll just have to see", self-preserving townspeople in the crowd at the Emperor's haberdashery reveal.

  5. Naming the book after the man most associated with monastic withdrawal really doesn’t help matters if you don’t want people to think you advocate outright withdrawal from the world. The name’s the game, mate.

    To this point, I offer this paragraph taken verbatim from the Introduction of the BO Book (via Kindle free sample):

    Alistair McIntyre said that we await "a new--doubtless very different--St. Benedict." The philosopher meant an inspired, creative leader who will pioneer a way to live the tradition in community, so that it can survive a time of great testing. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI foretells a world in which the church will live in small circles of committed believers who live the faith intensely, and who will have to be somewhat cut off from mainstream society for the sake of holding on to the truth. Read this book, learn from the people you meet in it, and be inspired by the testimony of the lives of the monks. Let them all speak to your heart and mind, then get active locally to strengthen yourself, your family, your church, your school, and your community.

    My question: What exactly does the first sentence of that paragraph have to do with the rest of the paragraph? It says we await a new "inspired, creative leader", yet the rest of the paragraph is directed solely to what each of the faithful should do in this hour of darkness, with no "inspired, creative leader". And no, I don't see Dreher implying that he himself is that "inspired, creative leader", now that you've presumably bought the book.

    I instead see this paragraph as showing that the McIntyre quote is merely painting authoritative philosophical lipstick on the pig of the nickel tour through history and crowd-sourced anecdotes in the rest of the book. So little wonder readers are confused: they're looking for an Option in the sense of a "Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian America" (the subtitle of the book) that has something to do with monastic withdrawal given the Benedict moniker, only to be told they misread the book if they think that's what it's about.

    1. Pik, I think he's implying that Pope Benedict is, if not that singular leader, then at least the BO's prophet, though I doubt Pope Benedict voluntarily signed off as such; as with many others*, Dreher just kidnaps him to his enterprise as well, like some touring ET loading up for anal probes:

      Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI foretells a world in which the church will live in small circles of committed believers who live the faith intensely, and who will have to be somewhat cut off from mainstream society for the sake of holding on to the truth.

      Of course, the "somewhat cut off from mainstream society" is a bungee of such infinite elasticity as to be fortuitously meaningless, thus inviting anyone of any lifestyle to 'at least buy the book before you criticize it'.

      Again, at least to my gimlet eye, Dreher, like many opportunistic charlatans before him, is peddling an infinitely suggestible, shapeshifting chameleon: "What would you like the Benedict Option to be? Why, that's exactly what it is! No, it's not like that at all; everyone knows it can't be that, unless, of course, you like that, in which case - neighbor, are you in luck today! - that's exactly what it is!"

      * Yet I say that MacIntyre is haunted by that sentence and the movement Dreher launched, not only because people skip his work and just read Dreher like Sparknotes to his work, but especially because in doing so, they fundamentally distort the point MacIntyre was making.

      MacIntyre heartily criticized this movement during the Q&A after his lecture on “Common Goods, Frequent Evils” on March 27. The central point, MacIntyre emphasized, was that St. Benedict “inadvertently created a new set” of ways of life, when all he intended to do was found a monastic order. The monastery symbiotically supported the “education and liturgy” of the local villagers who provided them with postulants, over decades and centuries “build[ing] up a local community [largely] independent of the feudal order.”

    2. To broaden out our perspective to include the motivations of Dreher's followers, it's fairly obvious that there's a current Christian existential misery with contemporary culture, and one so unselfconsiously modern itself as to not question its eagerness for an "app", an instant miracule cure to make the hurty go away. So into town rolls Dr. Dreher and his wagon: the tonic-as-moniker-form-only had already been determined; all that remained was to cobble together an ingredients list of unilaterally arrogated examples and testimonials, whether they were in fact examples and testimonials of a new, revolutionary option yet to exist or not.

      Remember, the late actor Steve McQueen finally resorted to taking coffee enemas for the colon cancer that ultimately killed him down in Mexico. There's no market so fecund as the terminally desperate.

    3. Of course MacIntyre, and both Saint and Pope Benedict, like Dante before them, are only there to make Rod look good, important, scholarly and serious. What they really said or meant has nothing to do with it. They are used as marketing terms, like "Corinthian" leather or "artisanal" bread.

      "The monastery symbiotically supported the 'education and liturgy' of the local villagers who provided them with postulants, over decades and centuries 'build[ing] up a local community [largely] independent of the feudal order.'"

      "Hence, despite the youthful St. Benedict’s flee from Rome to become a hermit, his mature work was 'not a withdrawal from society into isolation,' but rather a 'creation of a new set of social institutions which evolved.' The new St. Benedict whom we await must offer a 'new kind of engagement with the social order now, not any kind of withdrawal from it.'”

      In other words, separatism, even of just the monasteries themselves, was not what the real St Benedict actually was important for (at least as MacIntyre sees it), and is not what Catholic monasteries are all about. A monastery is indeed a place apart, a separate place, for the (comparatively) few persons who are its members. But the greater significance of the monastery is that it works symbiotically with the lay practitioners of a religion that, in Benedict's time and until quite recently, was confidently expanding, thriving, and striving in the world. Making converts. Becoming the de facto and often de jure official religion of nation after nation, and then continent after continent. Christianity, to put it in somewhat crude terms, "conquered" the world. It didn't retreat. And the monasteries, were hotbeds, incubators, of that conquest. They existed symbiotically with their immediate surroundings, as MacIntyre points out, and they also provided the training, the intellectual and spiritual "firepower," that helped propel that conquest far afield.

      Rod COULD if he was coherent, and bold, say that Christianity needs a new monastic initiative, to train up missionaries and scholars and so on, if it is to regain its confidence and its hold on societies. But he isn't saying that. Or, Rod COULD, if he was even bolder, be saying that Christianity has to become like the Amish, or the kibbutznik, and the whole thing (and not just the relatively few monks) really be a subculture, separatist and apart from society. But he isn't saying either of those things.

      Instead, he is saying:

      Look at these monks in Norcia, aren't they neato! Regular folks in the USA should totally live like them.... Except not be monks. And not live communally in large, single sex dormitories. And not be subject to the discipline of an order, and, ultimately, of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. And not take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, or any vows at all. And be free to come and go as they please. And so on. Nor am I saying that Christians need to live as a separate subculture, apart from the rest of society. No, what I am REALLY saying is only that Christians should be better parishioners or congregants,and better Christian parents, and better Christians in general, and, oh yeah, they should hang out, to the extent they find it congenial, with other, like-minded Christians."

      As if, as per Keith, the whole thing was really just another "app," that one can download and delete easily and at will.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. In response to George Weigel's "Panula Option", the young, passive-aggressive mustang lunges obliquely from cover, seeking to take over the old mustang's females and water hole rights:

    [NFR: I haven’t seen the Weigel piece, but yeah, I can see why he would get his back up about the Ben Op. It basically says that the project he, Neuhaus, and Novak worked on so assiduously has failed, so now we have to try something new. Here’s the thing: it really has failed. The Ben Op may not be the answer, but the Weigel-Neuhaus-Novak paradigm is not workable anymore. — RD]

    Is was going to ask how or if it were even possible to determine that the BO had failed, but on closer reading of the NFR I see now that it really doesn't matter, only

    "Fran Macadam says:
    April 18, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    Congratulations on having a NYT #1 best seller! Although I’m not sure you’re in good company. [smiley-face emoticon]

    [NFR: Alas, it didn’t make it to No. 1, only to No. 7 — but that still qualifies it as a NYT Best Seller™! — RD]"

    And, once again

    "Colonel Blimp says:
    April 19, 2017 at 10:35 am
    And have you ever thought that people are bemused because you use the language of withdrawal but then say you don’t want withdrawal at all? Well, what do you want? Also, do you seriously think people in the real, messy actual world can be persuaded to follow just the rightly calibrated type of withdrawal, the one you can’t quite put your finger on but know is out there? If you don’t know, then I certainly don’t know and neither do Mr and Mrs Hicks from Hicksville who have four jobs on the go just to pay their medical insurance and keep the bailiffs away.

    As I said yesterday, what is an ‘intentional community of faith’ if it doesn’t involve actual physical separation from the world, as with a monastery, as with the Bruderhof? You say are not advocating this, but then you draw on the language and concepts of these places and extrapolate them into ordinary parish life where they CANNOT work. A parish is not and never possibly can be a monastery.

    There are unique difficulties that face Christians who live out their faith in an apostate society, to give ‘post-Christian’ its true name. Working out how to hold the faith together will not be easy. But it will be possible using concepts that do not apply to day-to-day life in the world the overwhelming majority of human beings inhabit, i.e. outside the monastery walls. It’s like trying to use a sieve to transport water. How about you find a review of your book that is fair but critical and then addressing those criticisms? I cannot believe there are none."

    I can see now that people will now be talking about his Benedict Option with the same enduring interest that they're still devoting to Crunchy Cons.

  8. For those who have not read Rod’s recent 17 paragraph blog post, here’s the Cliifs Notes version.

    1. The famous people I hung out with and what we ate.
    2. My illness.
    3. The Bishop’s endorsement of my book, the Benedict Option, and what he said.
    4. Why my book is just like Chesterton, when he writes about St. Francis.
    5. A quote from my book, The Benedict Option.
    6. How my book, The Benedict Option was predicted by a famous church historian.
    7. Conservative Christians who reject my book, the Benedict Option, don’t know what they are talking about.
    8. Alasdaire MacIntyre needs to stay away from these people, he is being infected by them.
    9. I reexplain the meaning of my book, The Benedict Option, and what it does and does not mean.
    10.I have explained my book, The Benedict Option, over and over, but I’ll do it again for the dim.
    11.George Wiegel says something critical about my book, The Benedict Option, which means he hasn’t read it.
    12.Dr. Jared Staudt told people to stop misunderstanding my book, The Benedict Option.
    13. Dr. Jared Staudt recommends that you read my book, The Benedict Option. Follow his advice.
    14.The famous people that I dined with in the first paragraph read my book twice.
    15.My book, The Benedict Option, is about me being right. If you can’t prove I’m wrong, then I’m obviously right.
    16.Some famous scholars, even though they are Protestant, understand my book correctly.
    17. I am very humble.


    1. Lol, Sec Dem. That was hilarious. It also mentioned "Benedict Option" so many times that it read like SEO copy from the early 2000s. Maybe that means some googlers searching for BenOp stuff will end up here.

    2. Thanks Diane, I enjoy your posts too.

      The reason I'm here is because, while I've tried to talk directly to the Dreherman, as I believe one should when one has differences, he kept throwing me off his blog. There must be a sunset clause in the the TAC banning principle, because eventually my posts would go through.

      Anyway, I've quit posting, and only read it to laugh at the pretense of an adult who actually posted a picture on his blog of himself at 15, with a jacket slung over his shoulder, and scanned in sepia tones.
      Sec Dem

  9. Resistance is futile

    You will be mocked ("Go home, lad, you're drunk"), shamed as a coward, ridiculed, and read out of right-thinking Christianity until you allow yourself to be assimilated into at the least agreeing the Benedict Option is the pivotal Christian movement of our time.

    1. I see the Eight Principles of the BO are starting to make the rounds now. This is really becoming Crunchy Cons all over again, with a Manifesto of abstractions and everything.

      A couple of the Principles made me chuckle: Stability (from a guy who has changed cities and churches with abandon) and, of course, Balance, which turns the other Principles into knobs that one may adjust as desired.

    2. We just don't understand the "double-directedness" of Dreher's BO:

      ... I think they might need to take a more careful look at the actual arguments, the double-directedness of the project. On this, Dreher quotes with approval one of the Norcian Benedictines, who speaks of the need to have “borders” behind which we live to nurture our faith, but also the need to “push outwards, infinitely.” This double focus has always been implicit in Dreher’s writing on the Benedict Option, so it’s odd how often it’s missed. Some critics, I suspect, are mainly afraid to face up to what’s happening in America.

      If you don't understand what the "double-focus" of the BO is focused on, you're just afraid to face the truth about America.

    3. See, that's the difference between me and a New York Times best selling author. I would have thought I should make the focus of my project explicit.

  10. I take it Rod's malquote "No one has the answers" has been rectified.

  11. If you have to spend so much time explaining the book you just wrote to explain a concept you have been writing about on your blog for 5+ years, maybe you need to admit that you suck as a writer. It might also be an indication that the concept that has been at the heart and soul of your very being (right behind high-priced micro-brews, trendy cuisine, and boutique Christianity) really isn't being well-served by your efforts to "clarify" it.

  12. Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr...rivismo!

    "I know Tucker Carlson. I got him to phone my mom.

    Did you see me and Russell Moore on Face the Nation? He's a big shot in the Southern Baptist Convention. And there I was, sitting right next to him. On TV! Did you see that? Not bad for a good ole boy from LSU, huh, Mam!

    Now I get to hang out with Ross Douthat and J. D. Vance. We're all famous. Did you know that? My blog commenters know that. That's why they cling to me like ticks. But only the ones I let. Because I'm famous, and my time is precious.

    Because now I'm the leading Christian voice of my generation! Uh-huh! I am!

    See, because I'm a world-historical mouse, not a country mouse like my little sister, it doesn't matter what I write or whether people understand me. The only thing that matters is that they talk about me and put me on TV.

    Like Mike Cernovich. But I'm much nicer. Really!"