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The Benedict Option: a new monasticism for the 21st century

A new book by the conservative blogger Rob Dreher asks whether Christians should turn their back on society – is he right?

The relation between conventional communities of religious belief and the modern state shows no sign of getting any less complicated. On one side, those who hold certain convictions on (predominantly) gender- and sexuality-related questions see themselves as targets of discrimination or worse, locked out of various professions and regarded as deeply suspect if they put themselves forward for ­public office. See the controversy over Tim Farron’s supposed views on homosexuality or the conservative Catholic affiliations of Ruth Kelly when she held various ministerial posts in Labour governments of the 2000s.

On the other side, there are complaints that it is religious believers who are disproportionately privileged by virtue of being allowed certain kinds of exemption in the workplace. A modern society, it is argued, should not create opt-out areas in respect of settled legal rights and freedoms. It may tolerate diversity of opinion but not non-compliance. If people with certain beliefs are in effect self-excluded from some professions or positions, that is an unavoidable consequence of living in a law-governed society.

This is the backdrop against which Rod Dreher’s already much-discussed book appears (the New York Times columnist David Brooks has called it “the most important religious book of the decade”). Its argument is simple. For conservative religious believers, the battle on the political field has largely been lost; there is no point in wasting energy on forming coalitions to challenge or change legislation. What is needed, instead, is to develop a more densely textured religious life, in which regular patterns of communal prayer and intellectual and spiritual development will keep alive the possibility of inhabiting a nourishing, morally rich tradition. Christians ought to be more like Orthodox Jews or conscientious Muslims: living visibly at an angle to the practices of contemporary society.

This will demand a distancing from the assumptions of capitalism and the all-powerful market, and it will indeed entail the risk that Christians will find themselves de facto excluded from some professions. Dreher – an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a prominent conservative blogger in the United States – is sharply critical of a Christian rhetoric that ignores the evils of public acquisitiveness and selfishness while castigating personal delinquencies. He points to the tradition of monasticism as a model for developing alternative community patterns – hence the reference to Benedict – and invites a close reading of the saint’s precepts for monks as a guide to the practical challenges of living in close quarters with others. What lies in the more distant social or political future is not for us to see; but for now, what we need is a community life that seeks to live and worship with integrity and hopes to attract and persuade by the quality of its mutual care and the fulfilment of its members.

So the focus of Dreher’s case, advanced in this book energetically, though a little repetitively, is that Christian integrity does not depend on winning arguments in political terms. Instead it is by creating a culture – with a consistent ethical and imaginative identity, because it is centred on the love of God and truth for their own sake – that arguments about public morality are won.

The salient political challenge is whether the liberal consensus can live with a diversity of cultures and their convictions. Or does its commitment to public, legal, rights-based provision for its citizens require also the steady reduction of the space available for fundamental disagreement over ethical questions? To take one long-standing debate of neuralgic intensity: does securing legal access to abortion for anyone who requests it entail that no one with moral reservations about it should have any place in public ­decision-making, even if they are not committed to seeking a change in the law?

Quite a few, if pressed, would say that the answer to that is yes. It makes no sense, they would argue, to have someone holding a public role while questioning the moral ­legitimacy of acts that are agreed to be legal. If so, Dreher’s strategy is ultimately the only one possible for a traditionalist believer who does not want a revolution or a theocracy. The so-called peace churches of the Mennonite tradition (including the American Amish and the Bruderhof communities) have long since acknowledged that their opposition to war and their commitment to a co-operative lifestyle require the creation of what is, in effect, an alternative cultural environment, distanced from the mainstream. They accept the law, and also that they will not be involved in quite a lot of routine social and professional life. What they ask for is the space needed to secure their freedom to witness to, and to communicate, another perspective.

Dreher’s book thus challenges the liberal state to honour its commitment to liberties of expression and belief. Many who would not share the author’s priorities would agree that if we are serious about social pluralism, there is a strong logic to what he says.

Yet there are aspects of his rhetoric that leave a deep unease. “The LGBT agenda” is a phrase that appears on the third page of  the first chapter, and the prominence given to same-sex relations reinforces the common perception that the only ethical issues that interest traditional Christians are those involving sexual matters. In recent interviews, Dreher has been rather less vocally negative about same-sex relations in general than he seems to be in this book, but the phraseology (as in the derogatory use of “transgenderism”), here and elsewhere, sounds a note of angry anxiety and contempt typical of some voices prominent in conservative American religious circles, and somehow jarring with the commendation of Benedictine hospitality and equanimity.

Later in the book he observes in passing that, with the culture wars over sexuality more or less over, the future sites of political debate are race and class – which he seems to think are of less immediate concern to his fellow traditional believers.

Given that the greatest moral dramas of 20th-century America were to do with civil rights and foreign war, Dreher’s perspective here is worrying. He assumes, laudably, that the new Christian communities will have some concern for the marginal and needy but anything like a broader social ideal does not figure largely. Oddly, he does not mention the formidable American activist Dorothy Day or the “Catholic Worker” houses she established in the 1930s – centres caring for the destitute and staffed by people living under a common, very austere rule of life not a million miles away from Dreher’s ideal. But these groups persisted in public advocacy about poverty, racism and war (for all that Day also had uncompromisingly conservative opinions on many of the questions he flags). One would not easily guess from reading Dreher that conscientious religious dissent from the social consensus could fuel this level of public protest.

The lack of specific discussion of groups such as the Catholic Worker movement and the Bruderhof is such that it is hard to envisage just what Dreher’s Benedict-inspired communities might look like – though he strongly commends home-schooling and likes the idea of orthodox believers living in close proximity to one another and to their church. What is left most worryingly vague is how such groups might maintain a level of self-criticism, and how they would handle issues around authority and management of conflict. Benedict has a fair bit to say about this, and Dreher shows he is aware of it and of the problem of alienating a younger generation by excessive exclusivism. However, more information on how actual communities have discovered and handled (or failed to handle) such matters would help.

The Benedict Option is unsettling. It confronts the prevailing consensus about how far the majority is willing to make room for principled dissent and public argument – yet at the same time shows a rather dispiriting lack of confidence in public argument. It puts a solid and appealing case for religious communities to be more serious about the disciplines that sustain prayer, compassion and integrity; but it is also a jeremiad against the decline of a certain sort of American public piety, and the sinister plans of relativists and revisionists.

The book is worth reading because it poses some helpfully tough questions to a socially liberal majority, as well as to believers of a more traditional colour. Yet it also fails to note the irony of advocating what it does in a climate where liberal triumphalism has already been shaken by a very un-Benedictine set of influences, through the resurgence of populist conservatism and protectionism. And neither restating liberal nostrums nor Dreher’s “strategy of hibernation” – to borrow a phrase from Adorno – seems an adequate answer to this.

The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation 
Rod Dreher
Sentinel, 272pp, $25

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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My son is shivering – precisely the response you want from a boy newly excited by drama

I can only assume theatre is in his blood, but not from my side of the family.

I went to the National Theatre last week to see, not a full production, but a reading of a play – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, directed by, and starring, the writer himself. The pre-publicity described the play as a “big, bold and riotous look at gender, drag and fabulousness”, in which “the House of Light competes with the House of Diabolique for drag family supremacy at the Cinderella Ball”. It lived up to this thrilling billing, transcending the modest expectations of a “read-through” and bursting into vivid life on the stage. The audience, less subdued, less thoroughly straight and white than a standard West End theatre crowd, rose to the occasion, whooping their approval and leaping to their feet at the end in a genuinely rousing and moved ovation.

It was a great evening, and came hot on the heels of another success only two weeks ago, when Ben and I took our youngest to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The boy is only 16, and freshly into drama, so it felt risky taking him to a new play. But we needn’t have worried. The piece is visceral and physical, set in County Armagh in 1981; against the backdrop of the hunger strikes, it tells a story of the long reach of the IRA, and even though the boy needs some of the history explaining to him, when I turn to him at the end of the final, shocking scene, he says: “I am actually shivering.” Which is presumably the precise response you would want to get out of a 16-year-old boy, poised on the brink of being excited about drama.

But theatre isn’t always exciting, is it? Let’s be honest. Ben and I have slunk out of too many intervals, bored witless by something flat and stagey, so I chalk these two latest experiences up as something of a triumph.

I didn’t even know the boy was so into theatre until I saw him on stage this year in a school production of Enron. He only had a small part, but still had to come to the very front of the stage, alone in a spotlight, and deliver a monologue in a Texan accent. And seeing him out of context like this, I nearly fell off my seat with the jolt of dislocation, almost not recognising him as my own son. Who knew he could do a Texan accent? (He’d practised for hours in the bathroom, he told me later.) And when did he get so tall? And so handsome? I see him every day and yet all I could think, seeing him up there on stage, was: “Who on earth IS this lanky six footer with the Hollywood smile, making eye contact and connecting with the audience in a way I never could in 20 years of gigs?”

I can only assume it is in his blood, and has come from Ben’s side of the family. Ben was studying drama at Hull when I met him; indeed the first time I saw him with his clothes off was on stage, in a production of The Winter’s Tale where the director, somewhat sadistically I thought, lined up a chorus of young men to be dancing satyrs, and made them strip down to nothing but giant codpieces. We’d only just started dating, so it was quite the introduction to my new boyfriend’s body.

Theatre was in his blood, too, inherited from his mother, and he was always confident on stage, enjoying the presence and feedback of an audience, which is why he still plays live and I don’t. His mother had been an actress, performing with John Gielgud and co at the Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon, until her career was cut short by having a child, and then triplets. At her funeral a couple of years ago we listened to a recording of her RADA audition from the 1940s, in which she performed one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, her cut-glass English tones, declamatory and dramatic, in many ways every bit as fabulous and flamboyant as the drag queens in Wig Out!, whose theatricality she would have adored. She loved the stage, and she loved fame, and when it couldn’t be hers she revelled instead in mine and Ben’s, keeping every press cutting, wearing all the T-shirts, coming to every back-stage party. If it couldn’t be the spotlight, then the wings would do, darling.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder