The excitement of the week in Christian circles seems to be Rod Dreher's new book, The Benedict Option. If you haven't heard about it, its subtitle is A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, and the Benedict of the title is St. Benedict. Here's a bit from the publisher's blurb that gives you a pretty good summary what it's all about. I call it a pretty good summary based not only on the fact that it's the publisher's idea but on intermittent reading of Dreher's blog. This is something he's been talking about for some time:
Rod Dreher argues that the way forward is actually the way back—all the way to St. Benedict of Nursia. This sixth-century monk, horrified by the moral chaos following Rome’s fall, retreated to the forest and created a new way of life for Christians. He built enduring Christian communities based on principles of order, hospitality, stability, and prayer. His spiritual centers of hope were strongholds of light throughout the Dark Ages, and saved not just Christianity but Western civilization.
Today, a new, post–Christian barbarism reigns. Many believers are blind to it, and their churches are too weak to resist. Politics offers little help in this spiritual crisis. What is needed is the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church. The goal: to embrace exile from mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture.
Well, okay. There is obviously a lot of truth in this. I won't be reading the book, though, and the fact that I no longer spend much time thinking about Building A Better World is only part of it. There's a good review, both sympathetic and skeptical, of the book by Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic. I made the following comment there:
I find all this a little tiresome, even exasperating, because this discussion was being held twenty-five years ago in the pages of the magazine Caelum et Terra and other places. We must withdraw–but we must remain connected. We must turn off the tv–but we mustn’t turn our backs on the culture. We must form communities–but we mustn’t isolate ourselves. We must be critical of technology–but we should use it when appropriate. We must find ways of educating our children apart from the proselytizing secularism of the state school systems–but we must not be overprotective. Etc etc etc.
All these things have actually been going on in places like Steubenville, Ohio. The children of those talkers and experimenters are grown now, and the results have been mixed. Those having this conversation with such fervor now seem to be younger, and I wonder whether most of you can quite grasp how bitterly sad it is to see a young man named John Paul or a young woman named Kateri denouncing Christian “homophobia” and “transphobia” on Facebook, and applauding the punishment of bakers and florists for their “discrimination.”
Of course we had nothing like the visibility of Rod Dreher’s project, or Front Porch Republic, or many other such outlets. And maybe things have actually improved in some ways (in proportion to the escalation of the threat?) if these ideas have as wide an audience now as they apparently do. The “Benedict Option” seems almost like a packaging and branding of the fundamentally uncontroversial (among Christians) idea that the world is not our friend and that we must seek to shore up the foundations of our families, churches, and communities. I suppose it is controversial, though, and not new, to those who were fully engaged in waging the culture war via the Republican Party, and who find the idea of detaching themselves from that way of looking at things a little startling or scary.
But I hope no one thinks it is a solution. There is no *solution*. There is only coping, and there is no one way of doing it, and no assurance of success.
Then I added in another comment, "But, you know, Godspeed to all those who try it in one way or another." And I don't really have much more to say about it.
Here are a couple of other things on this topic that are worth looking at:
First, if you're going to get involved in discussions about the "BenOp" (that abbreviation really grates on my nerves), you should probably read the book, but if you don't want to read it and yet still insist on talking about it, don't attack Dreher for saying things he doesn't say. Here is a handy guide to what is and isn't in the book.
Second, a web site called Mere Orthodoxy has what so far strikes me as the most interesting commentary on the whole topic: most interesting because it points out that people have been identifying and discussing the basic problem Christians-in-a-post-Christian-society question for quite some time. I think the earliest citation here is from 1923. The piece is written by someone who graduated from college in 2010, and that's some reason for hope.
Just Google "Benedict Option" if you want to read more about it; there is a lot out there.
- Charles recommends listening to it. I don't think that would work for me. I have trouble maintaining my attention when listening to anything very demanding. However, I did, toward the end of Paradise, discover that reading aloud was very helpful. Among other things it forced me to slow down. I have a bad tendency to read hastily and sloppily, and you really can't do that with Dante. It also caused me to hear more musicality in Anthony Esolen's translation.
- But thinking along those lines reminded me of something I'd completely forgotten: I have a recording of someone reading the first 8 cantos of Inferno in Italian. I can't remember where I bought it. It's a 1959 Folkways recording, and my guess is that I picked it up in one of the sales of cutout records that a bookstore in Tuscaloosa used to have occasionally when I was in college in the late '60s. As far as I can remember, I never played it. But I have located it now and will listen to it next time I start the Comedy. Why did Folkways produce a Dante recording? I don't know, but the included booklet containing the texts lists at least fifty additional spoken-word recordings.
- Charles picked, as an example of Dante's poetic analogies, his epic similes, one that had also struck me as particularly good--the one at the beginning of Canto 23 in Paradise, having to do with a mother bird and her babies. But it seemed to me a little more richly phrased, and a little more old-fashioned, than I remembered. And I though "I bet this is Longfellow's translation." And it is. I'd been thinking that it might be worth investigating. It seems to be held in pretty low esteem, and Longfellow himself is certainly not valued as he was in his time. But if he's not as good as, say, Tennyson, he still has skills that have pretty well been lost. So I think I'll be looking at that translation among others next time around.
- In retrospect now I think it was a mistake not to have started again with the Inferno. I had read it twice before, and thought that was a good enough start to justify jumping in at Purgatory, but that was something like thirty years ago, and of course I don't remember it well. I expect to start again with it sometime in the next six months or so.
- Before I do, though, I intend to read La Vita Nuova. This whole notion of female beauty as a sign of or path to the divine is one that really speaks to me, and I want to know more of what Dante thought about Beatrice before he wrote the Comedy. I'm also very interested in reading the Charles Williams book The Figure of Beatrice, which Charles Kinnaird mentions.
T. S. Eliot makes a remark somewhere that Shakespeare gives us the breadth of the medieval mind, and Dante gives us the depth.
Faith is a form of realism.
—Madeleine Delbrêl, quoted in Magnificat
It's not something gauzy, sentimental, and vaporous, something for weak-minded people who can't face reality. In fact it's the work of people trying constantly and maybe desperately to find and face reality.
Chuck Berry, RIP. The man's best work was brilliant, though unfortunately the really creative period of his long life was only ten years or so, from roughly the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. Here is one of my favorites, not quite as well-known as songs like "Johnny B. Goode," and more piano than guitar-based. The lyric is delightful and poignant, especially now that my point of view is that of the old folks. It's a sweet and hopeful picture of an America that's gone and isn't coming back. And "coolerator" is just brilliant.