Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tom on the Benedict Option

Over at Disputations, Tom's not in the mood to waste words on the Benedict Option.

If you ever come across the term "the Benedict Option," there's really only one thing you need to know about: It's nonsense.

More precisely, it's a meaningless term, a cypher. The thing it refers to is a non-thing. As such, it can mean anything. And a term that can mean anything isn't worth talking about.

I agree with this assessment entirely. And yet the correction of errors often requires the dealing with non-things patiently and tirelessly. For example, the monster under the bed is a non-thing, but some people require night after night of sleeping in their parents' bed because they are obsessed with that non-thing, until finally they figure out it doesn't exist. Also some people don't want to go to the basement without at least their big brother because there's something scary down there if you happen to be alone.

Those are two examples that come to mind immediately, and it hasn't escaped my notice that they pertain to very immature minds. This is probably accordant with the whole point; Tom goes on:

"The Benedict Option" was a cypher when Rod Dreher coined the term nine or ten years ago, a contentless label generated as a placeholder for the idea he hoped would follow from his feelings on reading the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.

Waiting, waiting, waiting for an "idea he hoped would follow from his feelings". Waiting not for Godot, not for Benedict.... merely waiting for an idea that never took any discernible shape....

Since then, Rod has written a lot about "the Benedict Option" without managing to define it in a way anyone who doesn't find what he writes convincing can comprehend. These days, although he still can't say what it is, he does insist it's hugely important to every Christian in America:

Again and again: these are not normal times. We can’t be about business as usual. The future of Christianity in America will be Benedictine — as in Benedict Option — or it won’t be at all.

That might give one pause.

The Pause it gives me is akin to the town council's pause after Corky St. Clair announces his dollar figure in Waiting for Guffman.

The Pause is more real than the non-thing that is the Benedict Option because it actually does something. It asks a single, one-word question:


Read the whole thing over at Tom's. He really does have a great blog, and I don't check it out nearly enough. I'll just leave you with one more line of his which could serve as a conclusion to any and every post we do on the Benedict Option:

My advice to anyone who might be interested in "new forms of community within which the moral life [can] be sustained" is to think about them without reference to Rod Dreher or "the Benedict Option."

Hear, hear.


  1. From Tom: "Don't sail with a captain who's never yet reached port."

    Sound advice. Skip the Gilligan's Long Winter Camp for Christians excursion.

  2. Has anybody else noticed the similarity between Dreher's refusal to define the Benedict Option and Shea's refusal to define torture? As they say, birds of a feather....

    1. It should be pointed out, though, as I have just done, that Mark Shea isn't really "flocking together" with Rod Dreher on the so-called Benedict Option.

  3. On a less serious note.....

    I'm about to write my first book on The D'Hippolito Option (vitch yoo VILL reed und yoo VILL embraitz...orr eltz!)

  4. I meant to respond the other day when Tom posted his link. Loved the post. Tom rocks.

  5. Thanks.

    What I wanted to do was warn people away from a pseudo-thought that seems to be popping up in more and more places, not all of them with personal connections to Rod. I figured I'd mention him as the coiner of the term and be done with him.

    That didn't turn out to be so easy, maybe because I've got a lot of pent-up things to say about him, maybe because basically everything, even the nonsense, that comes from his mouth is in substance a projection of himself. Everyone who uses the BO term -- including us, including those who have never heard of Rod -- is using an empty container shaped by him.

    Kemetica decried the use of ad hominems against Rod. But what else is there? If you're responding to something he says, even if you're responding to someone who repeats what he says, you're responding ad hominem.

    1. ...and that is why he exists at all. People are afraid to criticize the things he says because it sounds like you're "bustin' on the poor guy." But what else can you do? most other commentators try to find something which is Benedict Option-ish that they can agree with, then they use gentle terms to voice their problem with it. Very few people are willing to downright call it crap.

      One of the kids who used to bully me in first grade was fat, held back in school and was made fun of by other kids. But he was still a bully. I was sort of terrified of him, but he was pathetic as well in my mind. Of course it wasn't until years later that I realized this.To a first grader, this reality was merely a bit confusing. People aren't simply good or simply evil. You can feel sorry for someone and still believe that they need to be put in their place.

    2. What I wanted to do was warn people away from a pseudo-thought that seems to be popping up in more and more places, not all of them with personal connections to Rod.

      Could you provide some examples of this, Tom? It's not that I don't agree with you, just curious.

    3. I, too, have noticed that the Benedict Option idea is popping up in more and more places, sometimes with no connection with Rod and no specific mention of BO.

      Apart from the "creepy culty" danger, I fear the "secure your own oxygen mask first" thing, which strikes me as profoundly unChristian. (Did Saint Damien of Molokai "secure his own oxygen mask" first? Heck, did Our Lord Himself secure His own oxygen mask first? Um, not exactly.)


    4. One of the kids who used to bully me in first grade was fat, held back in school and was made fun of by other kids. But he was still a bully. I was sort of terrified of him, but he was pathetic as well in my mind....You can feel sorry for someone and still believe that they need to be put in their place.

      THIS! I, too, feel sorry for people who were bullied when they were kids. Been there; still have the psychological scars to prove it. But, as I've said many times (broken record), there are two main ways you can respond to the experience of having been bullied during childhood. You can forgive (with the help of Grace), heal, and develop empathy for other victims of mistreatment. OR you can become a bully yourself. ISTM Rod has pretty much followed the latter path.

      When the bullied person becomes a bully, you can still empathize with him, love him, and try to understand him. But you don't have to put up with his crap. You don't have to subject yourself to his bullying. And you don't have to keep mum about its perniciousness, either. You can call it what it is: narcissistic bullying. And you can defend yourself and others from its poison.

    5. Could you provide some examples of this, Tom?

      I was thinking of the First Things and Aleteia articles, although the latter does refer to "my friend Rod Dreher." More vaguely, I've seen it turn up unsummoned in various Facebook conversations.

  6. In the peculiar cases Rod Dreher nevertheless presents with distressing regularity I wouldn't be too concerned with criticisms of ad hominem attack and I would especially not become unnecessarily timid about criticizing him because of those concerns.

    Properly speaking, an ad hominem is invalid because it attacks a personal quality of the defendant instead of addressing his proposition instead, cases such as, "You can't believe Tom's solution to that quadratic equation because he's one of those guys who wears a goatee".

    In Dreher's case, though, there is a clearly emperorographic 3 Card Monte bait and switch in play: there is no quadratic equation/Benedict Option to be clearly addressed apart from Rod Dreher, in fact the only thing Rod Dreher's Benedict Option can consistently be pinned down to even being is the Option to continue to talk about Rod Dreher talking about Rod Dreher's Benedict Option.

    Let's pause to summarize:

    Q1: What is the Benedict Option?

    A1: The Benedict Option is the Option to continue talking about Rod Dreher talking about the Benedict Option.

    Q2: Is this like staring into a mirror facing another mirror?

    A2: Yes, by design, and, moreover, those mirrors are infinitely broad, and everything captured within them subsequently becomes part of that infinitely regressive discussion of the option to continue talking about Rod Dreher talking about the Benedict Option.

    Q3: As with Obamacare, will we have to accept and embrace the option to continue talking about Rod Dreher talking about the Benedict Option in order to find out what's in it?

    A3: Yes.

    When this sort of phenomenon - that infinitely regressive perspective from a point singularity of solipcism such as Dreher is trafficking in with the BO (imagine, instead of two mirrors, a sphere mirrored on the inside - the proposition and its proponent become one and the same, "ecce homo" becomes the proposition, and it becomes impossible to address one without addressing the other; there is no longer a "one" and an "other", only the Option to continue talking about Rod Dreher talking about the Benedict Option.

    In this sort of logical equivalent of Einsteinian space-time at the speed of light, ad hominem is no longer a valid criticism.

    Now, if we say the BO is invalid because Rod Dreher has funny hair, that would be a valid ad hominem.

  7. Dittoes on your post on your blog, Tom. That's an excellent summary.

    Tom said here:

    ... basically everything, even the nonsense, that comes from his mouth is in substance a projection of himself.

    Precisely. The BO is essentially warmed-over Crunchy Cons, only with a religious motivator thrown in to boot. As I've mentioned before, Crunchy Cons intrigued me because I too believe that it is long past time for conservatives to take back things that were co-opted by the liberals (conservation, show tunes, you get it).

    But one finds out from reading Dreher, as I did, that his schtick is to wrap up his personal tastes in a grandiose cloak. So local produce becomes a grand political movement. Churches with ugly (to him) sanctuaries and lame (to him) music get wrapped up in anger (faux or otherwise) over the scandal and cause him to turn on the Catholic Church in favor of an obscure and hip church. That damn bouilliabaisse becomes a hill to die on in the Culture Wars. Conflation of matters of taste with matters of truth is Dreher's stock in trade.

    And now he's raising the stakes: the incorporeal Benedict Option has become the salvation of Christendom. Of course, as we've seen and will continue to see, Dreher can't define it but he knows it when he sees it.

    So to criticize the Benedict Option is in fact to criticize Rod Dreher the human, because the BO is all about Rod Dreher and only about Rod Dreher. Yes, it's unfortunate that it comes out that way, but the terrorist chose it by hiding behind a human shield.

    1. The BO is essentially warmed-over Crunchy Cons, only with a religious motivator thrown in to boot.

      Precisement, as Poirot would say. (Only he would add the accent aigu or whatever it is, which I don't know how to do.)

  8. Well, if the adults won't buy your BO, your kids are always a captive audience. At least until they're big enough to kill their own food.

    Note: this post is not merely about raising one's kids as good Christians, even good Orthodox Christians. Instead, it redefines raising one's kids as good Christians as preparing them for the apocalypse of martyrdom to come. Whatever you do, kids, pass on the Kool-Aid.

    1. On Sunday, after church, Julie and I had a Full And Frank Discussion with our boys over inattention at the liturgy.

      Oh my gosh. Way to turn your kids against religion. Make them feel as if you're control-freakily monitoring how attentive they are.

      They're kids, for goodness sakes. Kids have short attention spans. If you micromanage their every eye-blink, then, sure, you'll produce nice pious little robots. But deep inside they'll be Eddie Haskell. Or...rebels just waiting for the chance to escape.

      OY. I feel sorry for those kids.

    2. This is a conversation that Christian parents had better start having with their kids, not because They’re Coming To Get Us, as in the ages of martyrs, but because the middle-class softness of most American Christianity today — in nearly all the churches — will leave them extremely vulnerable to the acid of post-Christian American culture.

      What a freaking Pharisee. Who died and made him the judge of "middle-class... Christians...in nearly all the churches"?

  9. Let's keep in mind how relatively low the standards needed to create a critical mass to launch a cult need to be.

    While it may initially present itself as having a universal or near-universal appeal as a means of sifting the broadest possible audience for susceptible marks, ultimately it only need satisfy the ego needs of its charismatic/visionary founder, so it can still "fail" in terms of not being logically tenable overall while ultimately succeeding by attracting the threshold 50/100/1000 or whatever followers its charismatic founder deems necessary to fulfill his narcissistic ego quota.

    So, as Tom points out, the BO will very likely both fail and succeed in the very same way Crunchy Cons both failed and succeeded. There are people out there today grateful to Dreher for providing them with an identity as a "Crunchy Con" they might not have otherwise arrived at themselves, and there will be people tomorrow whose lives will now have a meaning and a focus in his Benedict Option, and both groups will continue to adore him and follow him for what he did to fill those prior lacunae in their lives.

    The rest of humanity will either be oblivious to him entirely or critical skeptics like us, but, as Tom mentioned, there will also be a measurable quantity of ultimately disillusioned human leftovers washing up in the wake of Dreher's passage for years to come.

    1. Shorter Keith: a parasite doesn't need all of your blood supply, just access to it.

  10. When you're forced, in your 3,751 word post, to pair an image of St. Benedict as a suggestive, phantom book cover with the cover of a Wendell Berry book in order to siphon any latent Berry-mana into "our little project", you're probably protestething too much and overselling, dude.

    Of course, as I mentioned, at the end of the day all this effort really has to yield is (A) a book contract with guarantees this time and (B) a selection of couches to crash on if things don't work out. Any human fallout from your appeals to others will be their problem or fault, of course.

    1. In case you didn't read it, the title of Damon Linker's article in The Week is

      The Benedict Option: Why the religious right is considering an all-out withdrawal from politics

      See, Rod Dreher is now the movement spokesman for "the religious right", including you. Why, including Owen White, Gabriel Sanchez, everyone at NRO, anyone on "the religious right". Quite the ringing endorsement.

      If anyone needs to know why we and others bother to speak out to denounce Dreher's mendacious opportunism at the expense of others, these two posts should bookend your response.

    2. It's part and parcel with his Dante book. If you can put your own work in the light of a great work like Divine Comedy, then it'll appear brighter than it would have on its own.

      Oh, at least we learned more of the attributes of the vaporware that is the BO:

      Though it has political implications, the Benedict Option is not primarily a political project. It is primarily a theological and cultural project. It requires not a withdrawal from political life, but a strong recalibration on the part of Christians of what is possible through politics in a liberal order, and what is necessary to do for the sake of the preservation, over time, of authentic Christianity in a post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian culture.

      Oh, I see now. And in keeping with the theme of this comment, Dreher goes on to say:

      In fact, it is an example of what Vaclav Havel once dubbed “antipolitical politics.”

      Again, Dreher hopes that by basking in the light of a great doer, he doesn't have to actually do anything himself, at least beyond adopting someone else's catchy phrase.

    3. Dreher doesn't really think, he merely decorates his mind the way a blue jay decorates its nest: "Ooh! Bottle cap! Ohhh! Marble! Ahh! Tiny pine cone!"


  11. Gah. Ptui. Bleah. To paraphrase what Diane said above, who the hell died and made Rod judge of anything at all? How many times a day now does he post a finger-wagging "I told you so" pseudo-semi-quasi-demi "prophetic" doomsaying warning to all who will not confess, mark, and inwardly digest his trademarked "BO"? How's about he retreats, goes quiet, and studies--for the years it would take to do properly--before he bleats about his Christendom-saving plan? But noooooo. Have had it with this guy. Had it.

    Oh for St. Benedict himself to appear to Rod in a dream and slap him silly.