Saturday, April 8, 2017

Take the Benedict Option. Please.

(by Mark Silk 3-31-17)

It’s a little curious that the hot religious title of the moment should be The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher’s prescription for living the Christian life in the wake of liberals winning the culture war.

Because the war doesn’t actually seem to be over, what with states now empowered to lift federal funding of Planned Parenthood, North Carolina just pretending to roll back its transgender bathroom prohibition, and the likely appointment of a Supreme Court judge who strongly supports the social conservative understanding of religious liberty.

Nevertheless, Dreher believes that Obergefell, the Supreme Court’s 2015 same-sex marriage decision, signified the decisive defeat of traditional values and the beginning of a new age of darkness. And so he proposes a strategic retreat into morally gated communities of faith.

I say fine. Send your kids to religious schools. Restrict access to TV and the Internet. Make your church your life.

This has been an American way at least since Mother Ann Lee began establishing Shaker villages in the early days of the republic.

These days there’s no shortage of Amish and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Mormons and home-schoolers of various stripes who, finding themselves at odds with mainstream values, keep themselves apart. Let there now be Ben-Opticians.

But as a sometime medieval historian, I wish Dreher had found another way to pitch his plea than monasticism in the so-called Dark Ages.

After the collapse of Roman authority in the late 5th century the real Christian heroes, for my money, were the bishops of Gaul, many of them married men, who kept their communities together, cared for the poor, and negotiated with the Germanic tribes who had seized power in their neighborhoods.

As for the monks, they were about the business of securing their own salvation. A monastery or convent was where you retreated, often as an older person, when you began thinking of the life to come.

Inside, they lived a well ordered existence — or were supposed to — under the Benedictine Rule. For those who could write, this meant going to the scriptorium and copying not only biblical and Christian texts but also Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, and other ancient Latin authors about as antagonistic to Christian values as one could imagine.

Far from being separated from the existing social order, the monks were deeply embedded in it. Rich people endowed them with lands and workers, and received in return the prayers that would, they hoped, ease their way into heaven.

Within their prosperous walls, the Benedictines came to serve as religious surrogates for the rest of medieval society. They were “those who prayed.” Rarely did anyone else make confession or take Communion.

What the original Benedict Option brought about, then, was a spiritual regime notably different from the way faithful Christians understand their religion today. I don’t think Dreher would have wanted any part of it.


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