Monday, February 16, 2015

The terminal logic of Rod Dreher's Benedict Option: Secular Millenarianism

Or as I more informally tend to think of it, Waiting for Godot Putin (or an equivalent, paraChristian secular warlord). Let's work this out, shall we?

Now, it's true, Dreher's Benedict Option can still be resolved as being nothing more than Dreherian emperorography, that is, one of those Dreherisms that evaporates upon scrutiny into nothing more than a Dreher-promoting reason to talk about Rod Dreher.

Similarly, his Benedict Option might only be one of those Dreher in-group-bonding shibboleths that one either "gets" or doesn't "get", like that liberal "check your [whatever type of] privilege" thing that's temporarily in vogue now.

But if there really is anything to Dreher's Benedict Option, let's try to systematically burrow down and figure out what it is.

First of all, as we begin to notice some familiar contours, we realize there's nothing originally or uniquely Dreherian about his Benedict Option at heart, and had there never been a Rod Dreher, sooner or later we would have inevitably been hearing about Dod Reher's Monastic Option instead. But since Rod Dreher happens to be the one who wants to build his reputation on this sand bar, let's give him all the riverfront footage he needs.

The Benedict Option imagines a certain type of Christian selectively hunkering down, selectively disengaged from contemporary society, not necessarily hermetic (although that would not be a disqualifier) but absolutely not embracing and exercising the Great Commission. The Benedict Optioneer might selectively tweet on Twitter, but he will not watch the Kardashians; or if he watches the Kardashians, it will only be on his computer, streaming, not on his television, and he will only tweet or blog disapprovingly about them, not joke about them in mixed company with the hoi polloi at the company water cooler.

Because, for the Benedict Optioneer, it is not up to him to go among the hoi polloi and explain why there might be better spiritual choices than Kim Kardashian's fat ass: his commission is to hide out selectively to some degree, untainted by them as much as possible, and wait it out until the decadent society supporting them collapses of its own butt weight and is revamped by factors not of his direct doing. The Benedict Optioneer, then, is the quintessentially Passive-Aggressive Christian.

To the extent that he looks forward to a societal collapse that will finally liberate him, allowing him to return from his selective retreat and fully embrace again a society now fully meeting his passive specifications and of which he fully approves, the Benedict Optioneer is also more or less a schadenfreude-driven misanthrope, maybe aggressively so, maybe just sorrowfully, with tears real or just crocodillian.

Either way, something or someone other than the Benedict Optioneer himself will be the one responsible for the Great Restoration. What or who will that someone or something be?

At some point on our journey through the logic of the Benedict Option we really do have to ask: if all society but the cells of the Benedict Optioneers themselves collapses into chaos and barbarism, that is, into that seed bed now fertile enough for the Benedict Optioneer to finally re-emerge - what sort of Christian does that leave the Benedict Optioneer being himself - if any sort at all? Everyone else finally in misery, so he can finally triumph. Exactly what sort of Christian is that?

On our hypothetical journey to the Great Restoration we also have to ask, what about the numerous historical Christian institutions covering the landscape and underpinning all but the most isolated, purely non-Christian outliers? A 2,000-year-old Catholic Church, with 1.2 billion members, its own Magisterium and own Vatican city-state is - dismissible? Insufficient to the Benedict Optioneer's psycho-spiritual needs? Why? Not to mention numerous other communions bringing something quite different than Kim Kardashian's butt to the four corners of the globe on a daily basis. Not good enough?

At this point many of us are probably starting to recognize that the Benedict Option is just a new, topically marketable flavor of an old standby, millenarianism, a psychological eschatological yearning indiscriminately empowering Medieval and End Times Christian, revolutionary Russian Marxist, and Polynesian cargo-cultist alike throughout human space and time. In other words, a purely secular, psychological ideology at heart.

But, can this Great Restoration of our passive Benedict Optioneering prairie dogs still actually be accomplished, if it ever is to be?

They will not be actively resisting the hypothetical social collapse and armageddon themselves. And, let's face it, any social collapse beyond any significant tipping-point will take all but the most remote, fully prepared Alaskan preppers along with it; the Benedict Optioneers will wash out to sea alongside their Kim Kardashian butt-ogling neighbors.

And it won't be Christ returning to set things right - that would explicitly make the Benedict Optioneers End Times fundamentalists instead, not Russian Orthodox and other traditional and orthodox Christians quietly waiting in their cozy corners.

So who then, will finally, actively ride to the Benedict Optioneers' rescue?

Why, someone very much like this guy,

a powerful, secular Prince who will actively sweep away the decadent landscape for the Benedict Optioneers, indiscriminately grinding Kardashian butts, weirdo transgendered athletes, effete Popes, inferior wines, pussy rioters and all other irritating detritus of what they might regard as human decadence under his social tank treads while recognizing the Benedict Optioneers alone - not the Vatican, not the myriad other Christian and other communions, not the ordinary hoi polloi just trying to get his genes on down the road a bit - as uniquely deserving of his special protection and cultivation.

You just wait until their secular Dad gets home.

This is where the logic road of the Benedict Option inevitably leads me and finally dumps me out: if Rod Dreher's Benedict Option is anything other than pure emperorography or shibboleth, it leads inexorably to the tacit hero worship of a conquering, secular Prince finally ushering in a Great Restoration.

Sorry, but I think I'll just take my chances with Kim Kardashian's fat ass instead.


  1. It didn't seem like anyone noticed that RD got printed in First Things.

    As for the "BO", it never had anything to do with Benedict nor was it ever an option.

  2. Keith, this is brilliant. Will be sharing with a few friends, giving full attribution, of course. :)

  3. I wish that some day, some real-life Benedictine would go all Marshall-McLuhan-in-"Annie Hall" on Rod.

    One of my favorite movie scenes of all time.

  4. This is excellent, thanks Keith.

    Perhaps my latest can serve as a companion piece. I'm really not sure that anyone would read his stuff if the ability to comment was not available.

  5. Thanks all. I think Pauli has probably hit on the best explanation for why it took so long for all these elements to click into their places: flocks and flocks of distracting word-birds, swooping and diving.

    But once you stop focusing on the individual globs of word salad and start thinking about what they alternately can and simply cannot mean, you can come to some very different conclusions from those Dreher would like you to come to.

    Chief among them right now, maybe, and probably the major corollary to what I've written here is that it seems incontrovertible that Dreher's relationship to God and religion is exactly the inverse to the one he's now pushing in the Dante book.

    Far from surrendering to God, Dreher has made a career of turning God and various successive religions into a crew of hired thugs to protect him from what he fears and loathes in life.

    God, the Equalizer. Now in Medieval Italian, to go.

  6. I read the First Things piece that Oengus linked, in hopes that I'd get a more coherent rationale of the B.O. Nope -- seems mostly to be a single-issue problem (SSM) with him, coupled with a rant on how the churches he doesn't like have done a poor job of fending off the culture.

    To the extent he's serious about it, the B.O. for him seems to be simply running away with his ears covered. But I get the sense that he's not all that serious about it -- he's just using it as a talking point to keep himself relevant while indulging his own wants. IOW, bullshit.

    Little wonder, then, that thinking through his B.O. ends with a nonsense result. Like Putin as leading the Renaissance, as you point out so well.

    1. P.S. "more coherent rationale" being more coherent than Dreher's droppings on the topic, of course (and not referring to Keith's excellent piece here).

    2. It's the same parasitic impulse he showed with Crunchy Conservativism. Make up a name, then call things other people are doing by that name, use the first person plural, and pretend you're a spokesman for something coherent.

      What was Crunchy Conservativism? Whatever Rod said it was. What are Benedict-Option Christians? Whoever Rod says they are.

  7. As you know, I have the same misgivings about the Benedict option, but I hope Putin's a new Constantine for Russia. At least he's not OUR problem; Russia's not Communist anymore. Any country where it's good PR for pols to have their pictures taken crossing themselves and lighting candles before icons has something going for it.

    1. Although I understand the hope driving what you're saying, what you are describing is a situation where Christianity has allowed itself to become suborned into the PR tool of a murdering authoritarian thug, Putin, on demand. One wonders whether the Ukrainians see him as a Constantine or as something more mundane.

      But I do think you point up similarities between Putin's violently "curated" authoritarian polity and Dreher's equally, though non-violently, closed society - if you haven't been following petite-Putin Rod's latest attempt to ban Pauli from merely following his Twitter feed, for God's sake (just try to imagine Jesus petulantly stamping His feet and trying to ban a Twitter follower), ask Pauli for the 411. Both Putin and Dreher confidently operate on identical, age-old paradigms.

      Both are quick to ostentatiously and glibly give lip service to Christianity and Christian values while in turn ultimately depending on a certain percentage of their respective populations needing them, Putin and Dreher, to be the (apparently) Christianity-affirming forces in the lives of those percentages themselves, cohorts ultimately unable to do so themselves and congenitally needing strong authoritarian leadership to give their lives order and meaning.

      For that Russian percentage, their church and Christian faith and traditions are not enough; they need the strong hand of a Putin to catalyze it for them into a holy Russian nationalism. For those similar Dreher-needies, their church and Christian faith and traditions are not enough, either; they, too, need the strong "curation" of a Dreher to reassure them that it is not only natural but right for them that he, Dreher, should be for them the final portal they need to truly bring Christianity and proper order into focus in their lives.

      Whether either Putin or Dreher become problems for others is pretty much a function of how large the respective populations of needies supporting either is and how far those respective populations allow the respective dog-and-pony shows of either to spread.

    2. Well, I guess we can hope that Putin is a Constantine for Russia. But I'm curious to know in what sense his actions (beyond crossing himself) are motivated by his faith. Or which of his actions pertaining to, say, Georgia or Ukraine, are so motivated.

      Ye shall know them by their fruits.

    3. I'm not sure what it really means to be "a new Constantine" in a country that has been rabidly Christian for a thousand years. Maybe Putin could be a new Valentinian.

      If we want to stick with Constantine, I think we need to know a little more about Putin's mother.