Rod Dreher’s spirited reply to my critical review of his book, The Benedict Option, has run its course. In my first reply, I defended Dreher against certain charges that struck me as being unfair. I continue to stand by them, but in this reply I’d like to move from defence to offence. I won’t pretend to be in dialogue with the author, since Dreher has pledged to ignore me from here on out.
Before I begin, Rebecca Bratten Weiss has anticipated the main thrust of my argument in her recent post on The Benedict Option, recalling the many failed attempts at forming lay religious communities so many of us know about (and that Dreher seems aloof or naive about) from personal experience.
The most notable difference between my review and Dreher’s reply was the element of seriousness. Being a “Very Serious Person,” Dreher says, is bad and deserving of ridicule. The intent of his reply was to mock the seriousness of my review’s content and tone and even of my own character and profession. This extends across a series of contrasts that I, for the most part, accept.
He is famous, I am not. He is funny, I am boring. His blog is popular, mine obscure. His book is a bestseller, mine won’t be. He is a journalist, I am an academic. He enjoys success while I am a jealous failure. He reaches the masses, while I live in an ivory tower. He is a man, I am a lad. He is sober, I am drunk. He is a person of character, I am not. He is not a racist, I am a race baiter. So on and so forth, one gets a general impression.
Dreher only admits seriousness about one thing: the fact that Christianity is in an existential crisis. On this matter, our roles are supposedly reversed. I am blind to the uniquely terrible circumstances of our day for Christendom, while he is clear-eyed about it and ready to save it by penning a bestseller.
If we accept these basic differences, I think we find an entirely new and perhaps deeper layer to what I initially critiqued in The Benedict Option, extending to Dreher himself. It is not only a failure of argument; it is a failure of wit.
Take, for instance, Dreher’s notable dismissal of me on the basis of being a “pouty professor.” This is odd for someone who’s book relies on academics as its key sources. Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Benedict XVI, Zygmunt Bauman, Patrick Deneen, and many more: these are not popular authors. One does not read A Secular Age for its relatable prose. “Liquid modernity” is not distinguished, as Dreher seems to think, from “solid modernity” in an easy journalistic story or style. This is not me trying to make the book into something I would write; it is asking for the book to be the book it claims it is, based on its own index.
If Dreher truly hated academics, his book would not be full of them, and he would not be desperately clinging to their authority and trying to assert their imprimatur. The more honest view is that Dreher likes academics so long as they don’t hold him accountable to his instrumental use of them. In order for his deeply anti-intellectual dismissal of me to have any merit, he would have to lose the backbone of his already shaky argument. Instead, he witlessly tries to have it both ways, confident, I am sure, that his faithful readers will not be able to tell the difference or care if they do.
Dreher’s disdain for the Professor and Doctor of Philosophy extends into the argument that, in order to produce a legitimately rigorous text using academic sources, one must write a tome of one thousand pages. Again, Dreher’s own sources disprove this. His most mangled reading was of Benedict XVI, on eros (one of the many objections he ignored), and the key texts for that idea are contained within two slim volumes: the first half of a short encyclical and an Ubi et Orbi address of a dozen or so paragraphs.
Benedict works closely with language, history, scripture, sources (most notably the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche) and more, all in far less than a thousand pages. How ridiculous, then, to suggest that my demands are for a voluminous book. Dreher misses the plain and painful fact that the problems with his Benedict Option are not quantitative, they are qualitative.
Finally, Dreher seems to forget that the university and professoriate he mocks is an institution that shares a common genealogy with the monastery. The monks did not just work and pray; many of them studied and wrote. Lectio and disputatio may be punchlines to Dreher, but the joke’s on him if he still intends to defend any relation to monastic and medieval life — not to mention classical education.
Of course, the real face of Dreher’s intellectual bona fides are on full display when he opts for Seinfeld memes and name-calling instead of argument. This is not especially interesting in itself, but it does project a profound sense of insecurity. Here is a deeply insecure man selling his internal condition wholesale to vulnerable Christians. Snake oil and all that.
About some points Dreher raised in rebuttal:
One, I never meant to imply that the Middle Ages collapsed in one fell swoop or that it did not last hundreds of years. I see how that could have been implied from what I wrote, though, and I am happy to clarify that Dreher’s inconsistency, on my reading, is in wanting the Benedict Option to do its work in two senses of history, the first literal, the second analogical. My quarrel is with the latter, second sense, not the first. But I do take the point that I gave a different impression in my review.
Second, I realize that Dreher tries to leave himself an exit with his claim that “History is poem, not a syllogism.” I am aware that he supplies a proviso about the limits of his sense of history. The problem is that this qualification does not deter him in the least. Dreher essentially says “Things are not so simple, be patient with me” but then proceeds to oversimplify and make prescriptive demands. When a cautionary note fails to inspire caution then it is really just a cheap escape route from anticipated criticism, not a serious pause.
Thirdly, the distinction between poetry and syllogism itself ignores that these things are not mutually exclusive in history or in argument. Dreher uses the “I’m not building syllogisms here!” excuse an awful lot. When one reads people ask him what The Benedict Option is really about, he tends to give a negative, “I’m not doing X” reply, followed with an anecdote or Christian platitude. This is effective in getting people who agree with his major (and only) premise — “Christianity is in crisis” — to accept his option but it fails to supply reasons. When people protest against logic too much, one justly suspects that they resent being bad at using it. And, against all formulaic caricatures to the contrary, there are no reasons without the logical use of reason. Even Dreher’s jokes suffer from the insufficient application of reason — they are blunt and tortured and cheaply made, like his prose.
After all this criticism, I should be clear that I do not find myself disagreeing with Dreher’s major premise about the crisis of Christianity and civilization. If anything, I am obsessed with it. Of course, my obsession with it begins with the earliest glimpses of the Christian community in scripture, where crisis was already a reality. From this point of view, we see Christianity face crisis after crisis. The fall of Adam, Christ falls a first, second, and third time, the fall of Rome, the fall of Hippo and North Africa, the fall of 1054, fall after fall after fall. These falls are related to earlier falls as well. The Hebrew exilic tradition creates a template for the diaspora where we find Jesus of Nazareth.
The long tradition of marking these falls in the modern era is well known. Read Spinoza, Pascal, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and more. These are not celebrations of the bounty of modernity. This is Hegel’s “hard saying” repeated by Nietzsche: God is dead. We are murderers. Then we had the world wars, the Shoah, the sexual abuse crisis. No one can deny the catastophic crisis writ large.
What we see when we look deeply into the scale of Dreher’s sense of catastrophe is that it is every bit as kitsch and parochial as his sense of humor. He seems to think that Obergefell will resonate throughout salvation history. He fails to detect the wit that results from the practice of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. There is no felix culpa in Dreher’s thin and fragile imagination.
I’ve seen and felt this failure of wit before, growing up in a charismatic covenant community that, unlike Dreher, practiced its apostolate without options, ruled in part by its manual, A Cultural Approach for Christian Community. I saw this community move into missionary work, where my family followed, and I saw it in a broader way during my time at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. As it disbanded, I saw people seek out Regnum Christi (the lay apostolate for the disgraced Legionaries of Christ) as an alternative.
Anyone who has lived in the church for a long time has seen these failures of wit and the tragedy and even perversity they are prone to. As grateful as I am for the formation I received, especially the discipline and literacy I now use as an academic, I cannot endorse this as a live option for anyone.
Before I end, there is also the issue of what the real difference and relationship between the global church and Christianity in the West is for Dreher. Scripture is geographically instructive to us here. There is no such thing as “the West” there. Jesus was not a Western man, nor were any of the Apostles. The spread of Christianity does not run from West to the globe, quite the reverse. So Dreher’s despair is, yet again, emotivist and modern, like his nomadic existence in lower case-o orthodox Christianity.
My forthcoming book of essays, Tell Them Something Beautiful (which, if Dreher is right and we should support Christian products, is published by an independent Christian academic press, Wipf and Stock, unlike Dreher’s Random House affiliate) deals with similar themes in a radically different way.
I wrote it with no reference to The Benedict Option, but since Dreher brought up the comparison, I’ll share my version of the predicament:
Observing the panicky mood overtaking politics and society—a mood born from an awareness of impending collapse—I feel as though I am sitting in the middle of an absurd parade. Augustine had worse things than absurdity to distract him. He wrote his Confessions in the midst of desperation. Christendom in Hippo, his diocese, along with the rest of North Africa, would soon fall to the Vandals, never to regenerate. Plato composed his Republic after his teacher, Socrates, had been executed, and after all of Athens had gone into a steep decline. The Apostles and earliest Christians watched one year melt into another with no Kingdom of God in sight, and with the Romans clamping down ever tighter, Nero making Herod look positively tolerant by comparison. We’ve grown accustomed to this absence, to this absurd immanence, but we’ve lost the robust hope of the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the ancients. In our primitive way, we expect our messiahs to return in our own lifetimes—tomorrow, if it’s not too much trouble. In their absence, we create false ones to adore, and construct palaces from the ether of our expectations. The “We” I speak of here is not limited to Catholics, or even Christians. Something about the present global condition blinds us to the fact that the longer we have to wait on promises, the longer we have something to look forward to.
This robust hope is the only option we have as Christians, and one of its fruits is the wit we find in Christ’s reply to Pilate, Paul’s reply to Rome and Athens, Augustine’s reply to Manicheans, Aquinas’s reply to Averroes, Benedict XVI’s reply to Nietzsche and conversation with Habermas. This wit is not popular nor is it self-recommending; it does not become a caricature of itself. This is a serious wit, one often honed through the critical fires of academic discipline.
If Dreher’s book and reply to me are evidence of the fruits of his Benedict Option, then wit demands that we say nothing more of it and allow it to reach its maximal potential as a popular American bestseller.