The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 2017)
I read Live Not By Lies first. The Benedict Option was written three years earlier, and the two make good companion pieces for asking vitally important questions about our lives, our priorities, and our actions. In Live Not by Lies I preferred the first half of the book to the second; with The Benedict Option my reaction was the opposite. I find myself quarrelling with Dreher in a number of places, but nonetheless highly recommend both books, because he is observant, and he is asking the important questions. Dreher predicts very hard times coming for Christians—and others—as our society diverges more and more radically from its classical Western and Christian roots and values.
In my review of Live Not by Lies I mentioned that despite being specifically written for Christians, it's an important book for a much wider audience. The Benedict Option is less comprehensive in scope, especially the first part, but still useful, I think. As of this writing it's $12 for the Kindle version, but I've seen it as low as $6.
You know I'm not in the business of summarizing books. I don't do it well, for one thing. When one of our grandsons was very young, when asked what a book was about, he would instead rattle off the whole thing, word for word from memory. I'm like that, minus the superb memory. But secondarily, I don't think summaries do a good book any favors. The author has put together his arguments, or his plot and characters, in the way he thinks best, and trying to pull it apart and reduce it seems to me rude and unfair. Or maybe I'm just trying to justify my weakness, I don't know.
But if I were forced to write my simplest take-away from The Benedict Option, it would be this: Riding along with the current of mainstream culture may have worked all right for us when American culture was solidly rooted in Judeo-Christian and Western ideals, but that time is long gone. Doing the right thing—whatever that might be in a given situation—might never have been easy, but it's harder than when I was young, and it's on track to get much worse.
With that cheerful thought, here are a few quotes. Bold emphasis is my own.
Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation. (p. 12).
I agree wholeheartedly about building communities, institutions, and networks. However, I don't think we should abandon political work. After all, for half a century, Roe v. Wade looked absolutely unassailable, and now there's at least a small crack. Prudence would say to do both: attend to politics (a civic duty, anyway), without putting our faith in political solutions, and at the same time prioritize the building of helpful communities, institutions, networks—and especially families.
The 1960s were the decade in which Psychological Man came fully into his own. In that decade, the freedom of the individual to fulfill his own desires became our cultural lodestar, and the rapid falling away of American morality from its Christian ideal began as a result. Despite a conservative backlash in the 1980s, Psychological Man won decisively and now owns the culture—including most churches—as surely as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and other conquering peoples owned the remains of the Western Roman Empire. (pp. 41-42).
People today who are nostalgic for the 1960's are mostly those who didn't live through them, I think. It was not a nice time.
Legend has it that in an argument with a cardinal, Napoleon pointed out that he had the power to destroy the church. “Your majesty,” the cardinal replied, “we, the clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last eighteen hundred years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”
You can achieve the peace and order you seek only by making a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root. Divine grace is freely given, but God will not force us to receive it. It takes constant effort on our part to get out of God’s way and let His grace heal us and change us. To this end, what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it. (p. 52).
[T]he day is coming when the kind of thing that has happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith. This is why asceticism—taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal—is such an important part of the ordinary Christian life. ... [A]scetical practices train body and soul to put God above self. ... To rediscover Christian asceticism is urgent for believers who want to train their hearts, and the hearts of their children, to resist the hedonism and consumerism at the core of contemporary culture. (pp. 63-64).
For most of my life ... I moved from job to job, climbing the career ladder. In only twenty years of my adult life, I changed cities five times and denominations twice. My younger sister Ruthie, by contrast, remained in the small Louisiana town in which we were raised. She married her high school sweetheart, taught in the same school we attended as children, and brought up her kids in the same country church.
When she was stricken with terminal cancer in 2010, I saw the immense value of the stability she had chosen. Ruthie had a wide and deep network of friends and family to care for her and her husband and kids during her nineteen-month ordeal. The love Ruthie’s community showered on her and her family made the struggle bearable, both in her life and after her death. The witness to the power of stability in the life of my sister moved my heart so profoundly that my wife and I decided to leave Philadelphia and move to south Louisiana to be near them all. (pp. 66-67)
Dreher wrote about his sister's struggle and the effect it had on him in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which I have also read, and may eventually review. As with all of his books, I have mixed feelings about that one. He idolizes his sister and her choices in a way I find uncomfortable, and reduces almost to a footnote the damage those choices did, to him and to others.
Saint Benedict commands his monks to be open to the outside world—to a point. Hospitality must be dispensed according to prudence, so that visitors are not allowed to do things that disrupt the monastery’s way of life. For example, at table, silence is kept by visitors and monks alike. As Brother Augustine put it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much, then we can’t really welcome anyone.” The monastery receives visitors constantly who have all kinds of problems and are seeking advice, help, or just someone to listen to them, and it’s important that the monks maintain the order needed to allow them to offer this kind of hospitality. (p. 73).
Father Benedict believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise. “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in.” (p. 73).
Though orthodox Christians have to embrace localism because they can no longer expect to influence Washington politics as they once could, there is one cause that should receive all the attention they have left for national politics: religious liberty. Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option. Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values. What’s more, Christians who don’t act decisively within the embattled zone of freedom we have now are wasting precious time—time that may run out faster than we think. (p. 84).
I know the book was written for Christians, but I wish Dreher had also emphasized how important this is for everyone. No one can afford to ignore the trampling of someone's Constitutional rights, even if they don't affect us personally. If Christians lose their First Amendment protections, no person, no group, no idea is safe.
Lance Kinzer is living at the edge of the political transition Christian conservatives must make. A ten-year Republican veteran of the Kansas legislature, Kinzer left his seat in 2014 and now travels the nation as an advocate for religious liberty legislation in statehouses. “I was a very normal Evangelical Christian Republican, and everything that comes with that—particularly a belief that this is ‘our’ country, in a way that was probably not healthy,” he says. That all fell apart in 2014, when Kansas Republicans, anticipating court-imposed gay marriage, tried to expand religious liberty protections to cover wedding vendors, wedding cake makers, and others. Like many other Republican lawmakers in this deep-red state, Kinzer expected that the legislation would pass the House and Senate easily and make it to conservative Governor Sam Brownback’s desk for signature. It didn’t work out that way at all. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce came out strongly against the bill. State and national media exploded with their customary indignation. Kinzer, who was a pro-life leader in the House, was used to tough press coverage, but the firestorm over religious liberty was like nothing he had ever seen. The bill passed the Kansas House but was killed in the Republican-controlled Senate. The result left Kinzer reeling. “It became very clear to me that the social conservative–Big Business coalition politics was frayed to the breaking point and indicated such a fundamental difference in priorities, in what was important,” he recalls. “It was disorienting. I had conversations with people I felt I had carried a lot of water for and considered friends at a deep political level, who, in very public, very aggressive ways, were trying to undermine some fairly benign religious liberty protections.”
Over and over he sees ... legislators who are inclined to support religious liberty taking a terrible pounding from the business lobby. (p. 84-86).
Nothing matters more than guarding the freedom of Christian institutions to nurture future generations in the faith. (p. 87).
Agreed—except that I would put "Christian parents" or just "parents" ahead of "institutions." Dreher is a strong advocate for Christian schools at every level, especially the so-called Classical Christian schools with their emphasis on rigorous academics. However, he gives short shrift to home education, an option that is at least as important and in need of support.
Because Christians need all the friends we can get, form partnerships with leaders across denominations and from non-Christian religions. And extend a hand of friendship to gays and lesbians who disagree with us but will stand up for our First Amendment right to be wrong. (p. 87).
Over and over again I have seen the importance of these partnerships. In all the "fringe" movements I've been a part of, from home education to home birth to small and sustainable agriculture, this collaboration with others with whom we had next to nothing else in common both made progress for the movement and—which was perhaps even more valuable—forced us to work beside and learn to appreciate the people we would otherwise have seen as our political opponents.
Most American Christians have no sense of how urgent this issue is and how critical it is for individuals and churches to rise from their slumber and defend themselves while there is still time. We do not have the luxury of continuing to fight the last war. (pp. 87-88).
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Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, September 2020)
My previous book having been Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer, this book's 256 pages might have made it seem like a beach read.
Not by a long shot.
I was struck by how much Live Not by Lies reminded me of The Fall of Heaven, although they are two very different books with very different subjects. The latter details Iran at the time of the 1978 revolution, while this book is largely based on stories from the survivors of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. What do they have in common? The warning that it CAN happen here. America is not so far off from totalitarianism as we naïvely think.
There always is this fallacious belief: “It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.” Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth. — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
This was certainly the fallacy I believed in.
When I was a child, Nazi Germany was a very near memory for my parents, and the horrors of Communism an ever-present reality. But I knew for certain that it couldn't happen here and it couldn't happen now, because America was free and the democracies had grown beyond all that totalitarian stuff. True, I was forced in school to read 1984 and Brave New World, but such situations were as alien to me as the farthest galaxies. Ah, the optimism of youth.
Did I say youth? If you'd asked me five years ago I would have pretty much felt the same way. But the last few years have shown just how quickly radical change can happen.
Enter Live Not by Lies. Dreher was inspired by the stories and concerns of those who escaped totalitarian societies (largely from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union) only to see frighteningly similar patterns in present-day America. He is careful to distinguish what he calls "hard totalitarianism" with its secret police, gulags, and material deprivation, and the sneaky, but effective, "soft totalitarianism" that threatens us today. He comes down very hard on the Left, but neither does he spare the Right. Evil is most effective when it uses both halves of the nutcracker.
As indicated in the title, Live Not by Lies is written for Christians. But it would be a great mistake for others to pass it up for that reason. The most effective resistance to the hard totalitarianism of Nazism and Communism came from diverse coalitions of dissidents, and that's just as important now. These are dangers that affect us all.
It's not a totally satisfying book, the second half being less powerful than the first—at least if I judge by the relative number of passages I highlighted. I could include a great number of quotations in this review, but I'm not going to. Live Not by Lies is only $4.99 in Kindle form. Give up one fast food meal and get a book that just might open your eyes and strengthen your spine.
The following, rather long, excerpt from the introduction explains well the form and scope of the book.
Part one of this book makes the case that despite its superficial permissiveness, liberal democracy is degenerating into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War. It explores the sources of totalitarianism, revealing the troubling parallels between contemporary society and the ones that gave birth to twentieth-century totalitarianism. It will also examine two particular factors that define the rising soft totalitarianism: the ideology of “social justice,” which dominates academia and other major institutions, and surveillance technology, which has become ubiquitous not from government decree but through the persuasiveness of consumer capitalism. This section ends with a look at the key role intellectuals played in the Bolshevik Revolution and why we cannot afford to laugh off the ideological excesses of our own politically correct intelligentsia.
Part two examines in greater detail forms, methods, and sources of resistance to soft totalitarianism’s lies. Why is religion and the hope it gives at the core of effective resistance? What does the willingness to suffer have to do with living in truth? Why is the family the most important cell of opposition? How does faithful fellowship provide resilience in the face of persecution? How can we learn to recognize totalitarianism’s false messaging and fight its deceit?
How did these oppressed believers get through it? How did they protect themselves and their families? How did they keep their faith, their integrity, even their sanity? Why are they so anxious about the West’s future? Are we capable of hearing them, or will we continue to rest easy in the delusion that it can’t happen here?
A Soviet-born émigré who teaches in a university deep in the US heartland stresses the urgency of Americans taking people like her seriously. “You will not be able to predict what will be held against you tomorrow,” she warns. “You have no idea what completely normal thing you do today, or say today, will be used against you to destroy you. This is what people in the Soviet Union saw. We know how this works.”
On the other hand, my Czech émigré friend advised me not to waste time writing this book. “People will have to live through it first to understand,” he says cynically. “Any time I try to explain current events and their meaning to my friends or acquaintances, I am met with blank stares or downright nonsense.”
Maybe he is right. But for the sake of his children and mine, I wrote this book to prove him wrong. (pp. xiv-xvi)
I'll let Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have the last word.
After the publication of his Gulag Archipelago exposed the rottenness of Soviet totalitarianism and made Solzhenitsyn a global hero, Moscow finally expelled him to the West. On the eve of his forced exile, Solzhenitsyn published a final message to the Russian people, titled “Live Not by Lies!” In the essay, Solzhenitsyn challenged the claim that the totalitarian system was so powerful that the ordinary man and woman cannot change it. Nonsense, he said. The foundation of totalitarianism is an ideology made of lies. The system depends for its existence on a people’s fear of challenging the lies. Said the writer, “Our way must be: Never knowingly support lies!” You may not have the strength to stand up in public and say what you really believe, but you can at least refuse to affirm what you do not believe. You may not be able to overthrow totalitarianism, but you can find within yourself and your community the means to live in the dignity of truth. If we must live under the dictatorship of lies, the writer said, then our response must be: “Let their rule hold not through me!” (pp. xii-xiv)
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Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.
— C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters
[This is not the "Last Battle" series post I said would be next, but it seems appropriate. I'm still working on the other.]
As I write this post, the presidential election results are still up in the air, though the wind direction seems clear. It may change; it may not. Regardless, I will repeat below the post-election analysis I first wrote after Barack Obama's victory in 2008, and reprised in 2016 for Donald Trump's. The players and the parties change; the sense is the same.
And please remember this, victors, whoever you are: Approximately half of your fellow-countrymen—your neighbors, co-workers, friends, and families—are genuinely saddened, frightened, and maybe deeply depressed by the results. This is not some football game; it is our country, our world, and our future. Exulting in the streets, or anywhere other than among similarly-minded friends, is inappropriate. Whoever will eventually have been determined to have won the presidency, or any other office, this will not be a great triumph of good over evil. That battle can only be won in human hearts, and kindness and sympathy for those who are feeling disenfranchised might be a great place to begin.
Note: This was written specifically for a Christian audience. Anyone else is more than welcome to come along for the ride, but be prepared for a lot of quotations from a source of which you do not recognize the authority. You may still find value in the meaning.
How We Can Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
First of all, we pick ourselves up with as much dignity as we have remaining and give respect and support to our new leaders. "Fear God, honor the king" (I Peter 2:17) applies in a democracy, too. Humor has an important place in discourse, but mean-spirited mockery does not. I'm extremely uncomfortable with the abuse heaped on George W. Bush, just as I was when it was Bill Clinton on the receiving end, and I will accord Barack Obama the respect due the President of the United States, as well as that due a human being created in the image of God.
We pray for Barack Obama, and for all "who bear the authority of government." If the Apostle Paul could write, per I Timothy 2:1-2, "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made....for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness," while living under the Roman Emperor Nero, we can do the same living under an elected president who is not likely to include among his alternative energy polices the burning of living, human torches.
We attempt to live our lives in the best, most honest, most noble, and most loving way possible. Back to I Peter again (2:15-16): "[I]t is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God." The Republicans would do well to remember that scandal and wrong-doing among office holders has done more than anything else to bring them down. Granted, it's not fair that the Democrats mostly get a pass for their equal or greater sins—although it's actually a compliment that better behavior is expected of Republicans—but the reality is that Republicans were hurt badly first by misbehavior and even more by not visiting swift and sure justice upon the miscreants. To live purely and act rightly, with justice and love and in quiet confidence, will win more hearts than the most reasoned argument.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-18, 21)
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe. (Philippians 2:14-15)
[L]et your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16).
We attend to the wisdom of the serpent as well as the harmlessness of the dove. Now is not the time to retreat from the political process, but to be all the more involved that we might be alert to dangers that threaten what we hold dear, and to how we might best meet those threats. History has proven that when we are caught unaware we react hastily, badly, and often ineffectively.
We don't flee to the hills, or to another country (as many threatened after losing the 2000 and 2004 elections), or withdraw from the system in sulky silence. It's not time, yet, for "those who are in Judea to flee to the mountains." If we feel like exiles in our own land, it is time to remember what God said to his people at the time of another exile: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29:5-7). We continue to live our lives wisely and without fear. The administration may have changed, but the basic rules of life have not. There's still the Big Ten—don't steal, don't murder, don't mess with someone else's spouse, and all the rest—and the sound-bite version provided by Jesus: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, [and] love your neighbor as yourself."
Many of us are accustomed to feeling alienated from the general American culture; it may even be easier—or at least clearer—when there's no pretense that "our guys" are in charge. Whether it's financial responsibility, ethical behavior, or wise decision-making, in a democracy the citizens get no better from their government than the majority lives out in their lives. True progress, then, requires that we balance a deliberate counter-cultural structuring of our own lives, families, and communities with a creative engagement of the larger culture. That is how we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land.
In August of 2018, my friend Eric Schultz posted an article that struck me to the heart, and I’ve been meaning ever since to write about the thoughts it inspired.
Warning to procrastinators: Don’t. Today I went to re-read the article and discovered that it was no longer available on Eric’s Occasional CEO site. Worse, though I thought I had saved copies of the article, it turns out they were merely copies of the link, which did me no good. Even the Wayback Machine failed me.
Eric found a draft version of the post and put it back up here. It’s not as polished as I remember the original being, but you’ll get the idea. In trying to fathom why it disappeared, he suggested that maybe he had decided it was too dark and took it down. Maybe he did—though having had one of my own posts removed from Facebook by the corporate censors, and heard similar stories from others, I no longer dismiss the notion that some disappearances might be less than innocent. In any case, dark as the post may have been, what I took away from it was hope.
For several years now I have been concerned by the number of people who look around and are overcome by despair. Despair deep enough that they have determined to have no children, because “how could I bring a child into such a terrible world?” If suicide is the extreme expression of individual hopelessness, surely this is the same attitude on a much larger scale.
The odd thing is, though they have this despondency in common, people are coming to this point from many different places, and with many different fears. Climate change, the election of President Trump, an asteroid hitting the earth, terrorism, pandemic, widespread civil unrest, and the takeover of our world by super-intelligent computers are only a few of the disasters on the brink of ending not only the world as we know it, but any world worth living in. How should we live in such times? How dare we bring children into such a world?
I’ve long wanted to write an answer to these questions—to these fears. Eric’s post gave me a place to start. The chief difference is that, back in 2018, when I started writing this post in my mind, it was from a position of strength. I saw these fears as understandable, but not really rational; I certainly didn’t feel them myself to any great extent. But this past year has dealt a hard blow to my easy optimism, and I sometimes fight with despair myself. I still believe in the hope I had back in 2018, and I think what I will write will not be substantially different from what I would have written then. The difference is that now I will also be preaching to myself.
This morning I realized that I have put this post off for so long not only because it's such an important subject that I don't feel worthy to take on, but even more because I was trying to make it into a single post, which it just cannot be. Therefore I’m going to be tackling it in smaller segments, and have created a new category for them: "Last Battle." At least that takes the pressure off of making everything hang together as a single narrative.
Next up? The hope I found in Eric’s dark essay.