In the next chapter of The Benedict Option, Dreher makes a number of shrewd observations about the role of community in resisting the encroachments of the Leviathan state. What Hillary Clinton famously said in promotion of that devouring Leviathan turns out actually to be true in another sense—“it takes a village to raise a child.”
The sense in which it is true turns out to be a variation on Edmund Burke’s great observation about the “little platoons.” An atomistic culture, where each individual is an isolated atom, will be unable to resist the massive force of the collective. But if we have numerous molecular bonds—church, family, school, region, etc.—we will be much better equipped to resist the demands of the Hive.
And Dreher does a good job in pointing this out. “It really does take a village—that is to say, a community—to raise a child” (Loc. 1831). And “religion is like a language: you can learn it only in community” (Loc. 1836). There is also this: “Despots, he said, ‘have never worried about religion that is confined mutely to individual minds’” (Loc. 1845). “Their thick community is a strong model of being in the world but not of it” (Loc. 2003).
Our efforts in this regard will have to be intentional because we are up against it. “The power of secular culture to break the chains anchoring us firmly in the biblical story is immense” (Loc. 1857).
Dreher also does a good job here in advocating a life of actual discipline while at the same time warning against buzzkill religiosity.
“That means maintaining regular times of family prayer. That means regular readings of Scripture and stories from the lives of the saints—Christian heroes and heroines from ages past” (Loc. 1862).
“. . . the laughter and conversation around our hearth and table with travelers and other guests and associate that with what it means to be a Christian family, sharing our blessings with others and receiving in turn the blessing of their company” (Loc. 1880).
He also knows that the Benedict Option is going to be instantly attractive to that category of person who always wanted to live in a Unabomber cabin, and he warns us about that temptation. “If you isolate yourself, you will become weird” (Loc. 2070).
And if you form a community, but you do it the wrong way, too strictly and on too small a scale, you are trying to fight off Leviathan by forming weird little cults. That won’t work either.
“The greatest temptation for tight-knit communities is a compulsion to control its members unduly and to police each other too strictly for deviation from a purity standard” (Loc. 2064).
You can say that again. In fact, I think that this would be one of the greatest challenges to any serious Benedict efforts. How can you attempt the Grand Oddball Reaction to Modernity without having genuine oddballs wanting to join it? To his credit, Dreher really does see those possible problems and clearly warns against them.
At the same time, I do have a couple of criticisms, not so much of the chapter, as of some of the background assumptions floating, as background assumptions are wont to do, in the background.
On the one hand, he notes (correctly) that “American Christians have a bad habit of treating church like a consumer experience” (Loc. 1970). At the same time, he puts the claims of truth (the only real answer to consumerism) in the back seat. He does this in the way he talks about “an ecumenism of the trenches” (Loc. 2029). For example, he does this when he discusses a gathering associated with “the legendary Eighth Day Books” (Loc. 2033)—which is, by the way, a great place to shop for books. My concern is not the fact of such ecumenical friendships and discussions. It is wonderful that we have “a kind of Christian speakeasy” (Loc. 2035).
The problem is that Dreher’s description of it falls plomp into the trap of “religious convictions as a consumer choice.” He says, for example, “that nobody is trying to convert anybody else” (Loc. 2047). Everybody is given “the grace to bring their full Christian selves to the table without fear of reproach” (Loc. 2049). Put another way, if this really were true, then nobody really believes anything they are saying. In this restaurant, you are free to order your eggs whatever way you want, but if the rule is that you cannot question anybody else’s eggs, then what everybody is saying is that “this choice is true for me.” But that kind of thing is what got us the Leviathan state in the first place.
The second problem is related. When he is talking about the little platoons that are developing ways to resist Leviathan, the example of the Mormons serves him just as well as more orthodox bodies. He points to the fact that Mormons do not church shop. They are grounded geographically. “They are assigned their ward based on where they live and have no right of appeal” (Loc. 1967).
But can we really resist, effectively resist, what is coming at us if we make the truth optional, the gospel optional, the presence and power of the Spirit optional?
All of this is to say that I believe that “intentional communities” will certainly be a part of our resistance to the kultursmog, but they themselves will have to be the fruit of something else. What is that something else? I don’t think the vanguard will be a new Benedict, planting such communities. The need of the hour—if we were doing things according to my specifications—would be ten or twelve modified Billy Grahams, filling up stadiums like nobody’s business. They would all have floppy Bibles in their left hand, a pocket-sized copy of the Westminster Confession in their suit coat pocket, right next to the heart, and a worn out copy of Pilgrim’s Progress at home.
I said modified.