Real Talk About the "Benedict Option," With an Assist from George R.R. Martin

One of those code phrases that one hears from conservative Christian people, particularly those of a more intellectual bent, is "the Benedict Option."  Rod Dreher is big on this concept.  As far as I am aware, it was coined by the philosopher Alistair MacIntyre in his influential book After Virtue and then picked up and spun out from there.  The notion is that the (somewhat amorphous concept called the) "West" is either entering, or is about to enter, a period similar to the Dark Ages of the first millennium of European history.  This Dark Ages 2.0 is the product of the decline of Christian values in the West in favor of "secular" values, in the form of the standard conservative talking points--gay rights, feminism, abortion, Obama, Hillary, etc.

In the face of this threat, the proper solution is to do what they did in the face of the first Dark Ages, and that is to separate from the world and build institutions that will weather the storm and be prepared to re-emerge and rebuild after it blows over.  The phrase "the Benedict Option" refers to St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism.  Under this view, Benedictine monasteries preserved Christian culture from the destruction and chaos of the period, which then formed the seed from which a Christian awakening could emerge.

Here is my question to the proponents of the Benedict Option--what exactly do you intend to preserve in your ersatz monasteries?  Or, to ask the same question in a different way, what is your vision of the world that will emerge once this Dark Ages 2.0 is over?

Consider the first incarnation of the Benedict Option.  After three hundred years of Christianity as an underground, at times persecuted, faith, it emerges in rapid order to become the official faith of the tottering remains of the Roman Empire in the West.  That lasts for about 100 years--the Roman Empire collapses in the West, non-Christian Germanic tribes pillage and destroy pretty much everything that remained.  St. Benedict establishes his monastery at Monte Cassino in 529 A.D.  At that point in time, there is no substantial organized political structure in the West beyond local kingdoms and tribes.  The vast majority of these polities had no Christian component.  Christianity was basically underground in the West.

Four hundred years later, with the exception of the Vikings, basically the entirety of the West was officially Christian, and organized along feudal lines.  By the time you get to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, you have many of the current countries of Europe--England, France, Scotland, etc.--in their nascent forms.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, that 1066 is the end of the first Benedict Option.

What did it accomplish?
Well, it preserved a great deal of the learning of the classical world that otherwise surely have been lost.  To be fair, much of that preservation was done by the Irish monks, as this article points out.  More substantially, much of the "good stuff" actually came from Muslim Spain and/or the Byzantine Empire during the high Middle Ages.  Still, the Benedict Option did lots of good work to preserve learning in a difficult time.  It is difficult to see, however, what parallel this has to Dark Ages 2.0.  Gay couples are not demanding that books be burned, as far as I know, and all of these books are scanned on Google, anyway.  Does Rod Dreher really think that gay marriage is going to lead to a Mad Max situation?  Perhaps he does, but I think even people who despair of the direction of Western culture don't think that we are really risking the destruction of basic secular knowledge.

So, that's not what is at stake here.  Instead, the idea that Dreher and others have is that Benedict and his fellow travelers preserved Christianity, and more importantly a sense of Christian culture, which then spread out over Europe; likewise, these new Benedictine communities will do the same once Western culture has exhausted itself  As Dreher says:

These communities offer a way for believers to thicken Christian culture in a time of moral revolution and religious dissolution. And if they’re successful over time, they may impart their wisdom to outsiders who crave light in the postmodern darkness. 

How did that work out the first time?  There is no question that the "culture" of Europe at the time of Benedict was brutal and violent, manifesting almost nothing that reflects the message of Jesus Christ.  But the culture of Western Europe after the "success" of the Benedict Option was not much better.  While everyone was Christian in a formal sense, there was still endless warfare (often either officially, or at least tactily, sanctioned by the Church), still crushing poverty and wealth disparities, still casual brutality.  Rulers and populations had embraced Christianity in a formal sense, but there still was not much evidence that the message of Jesus had made concrete changes in the way people lived.

Think about Game of Thrones.  George R.R. Martin has invented a world with no trace of Christianity or Christian values (well, maybe the High Sparrow. . . .)  Not only do "nice guys finish last" in Westeros and Essos, even vaguely honorable people get rolled over with regularity.  Casual brutality and violence are the order of the day, and is an established part of daily life.

Now, try this thought experiment.  Pick any period of European history between 1066 and, say, 1800.  Now pick a country or similar grouping--not some isolated community, but some relatively large polity.  Ask yourself this question--was that place more like the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus, or like Westeros?  I think you would have a very difficult time arguing that any place was more like the Kingdom of God.  In most places, you basically find Westeros with Gothic Cathedrals and Gregorian Chant (or reasonable Lutheran churches and Bach, or whatever).

If that is true, if the result of the Benedict Option was a brutal, violent culture with a thin veneer of Christianity, then the first version Benedict Option did not accomplish what it set out to do, at least as framed by folks like Dreher.  It may have preserved and disseminated moral ideas, but it did not create many significant moral realities.  It didn't really work.  Even a guy like Dreher, I think, doesn't advocate burning heretics or infidels at the stake, or medieval torture practices, or serfdom.  Those are not authentic fruits of Christianity.

That's what makes this idea the Benedict Option so quixotic.  The Benedict Option failed the first time around.  It failed to produce a culture that incorporates the teachings of Christ in a way that has a practical impact on the lives of people.  Even if you believe that the current culture is heading for the cliff from a moral perspective, the Benedict Option presupposes that the end product is going to be an culture informed by Christian values.  What makes you think it is going to work this time, when it failed the first time?

Unless, of course, deep down these folks advocating for the Benedict Option are fine with what we actually got as a result of the first incarnation of the Benedict Option.  Their vision of what will emerge from their monasteries or Doomsday Prep bunkers really is Medieval France or Renaissance Spain or Puritan England.  Whether or not these models actually comport with the vision of Jesus as stated in the Gospels is beside the point for these folks; what is important is that their team will emerge on top once again.  On this view, what this is really about is attempting to preserve, and then ultimately reassert, Christendom as Christendom.  Crusades are not an unfortunate sidenote from a complicated time, but the very point of the exercise.

The commentator Morgan Guyton coined the term "Klingon Christianity" to describe certain segments of the conservative Christian establishment.  With all due respect, that doesn't go far enough.  What we are really talking about here, and what the Benedict Option has the potential of devolving into, is an attempt to preserve Westerosi Christianity--the utterly paradoxical and stupifyingly incoherent notion of kicking everyone's ass and grinding one's enemies underfoot in the name of the Prince of Peace.  The message of Jesus of Nazareth is incompatible with pursuing the Game of Thrones, but that hasn't stopped folks, in the past and in the present, from trying.  If the Benedict Option represents a tactical retreat in the long campaign for the cultural equivalent of the Iron Throne, then it is something to be opposed.  Not on the grounds of so called "secular values" but on the grounds of the message of Christ himself.

Whatever you think of the values of modern Western culture, Westerosi Christianity is indeed on its way out, one way or the other.  It is doomed because it doesn't make any sense, and both Christians and non-Chistians are starting to realize this.  It cannot be saved, and should not be saved.  But I worry that the folks who are advocating the Benedict Option are hellbent on trying.


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