Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name (Leah Libresco)

Creating a social movement is hard.  Creating a social movement of conservatives is even harder, since for the most part progressives derive much of life’s meaning from social action, while conservatives just want to live their lives.  For three years now, Rod Dreher has rung the alarm bell of his Benedict Option, warning that the hour is late, and Moloch is within the gates.  Many are listening and receptive, even eager.  But the Benedict Option faces challenges, of which the first is inertia, since conservatives find it hard to act to change their lives when not directly impelled.  In response, Leah Libresco here outlines an excellent plan to overcome that inertia.

When I first started writing this review, I thought I would discuss as well as second challenge—the enemies of the Benedict Option.  But after thought, it is not quite correct that enemies are a challenge that will rise to meet the Benedict Option.  It is more accurate to say that virtue and goodness have enemies and the Benedict Option will be one of their targets, since it is one, but only one, manifestation of virtue and goodness.  Therefore, defending virtue and goodness as a whole is necessary to protect and carve out space for the Benedict Option, and to allow all people to flourish.  That is, the Benedict Option is necessary, but not sufficient, in the declining West.  It must be coupled with a twin power, externally focused to complement the Benedict Option’s primarily local focus.

But first, let’s talk about Libresco’s book.  As many people don’t understand, or choose not to understand, Dreher’s Benedict Option has nothing to do with “heading for the hills,” and everything to do with building thick local communities of Christians in order to resist liquid modernity.  The people forming these local communities are not planning to move anywhere, and they are not cutting off their connections to the rest of the world.  In fact, if anything, they will probably increase their connections to the rest of the world, to their co-workers, to strangers in need, and to old and new friends.  Really, the Benedict Option is an attempt to rebuild, in a different and more resistive form, the old intermediary institutions of society that have disappeared over the past fifty years, but with a specifically Christian gloss appropriate for the age.

Libresco is furthering Dreher’s project by giving small-scale, concrete advice how to build such community.  Her focus isn’t on all possible versions of the Benedict Option; rather, it’s on what makes sense for younger urbanites, such as herself.  Most of her advice revolves around simple gatherings designed for Christians to reinforce their bonds and faith.  She addresses administrative challenges and gives sound advice for how and whom to invite, what to offer to eat, how to schedule, and so forth.  All of this is done from a Christian perspective, of course, and the presumption is that most invitees will be Christian, but not necessarily all.

What underlies all Libresco’s specific plans and ideas is to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  You have to try different things and see what works for your group and your situation.  You can’t get too upset if something doesn’t work, if something ends naturally because some people move away or your group isn’t interested in Shakespeare film marathons.  Yes, some of what she suggests won’t apply to everyone; that is not a failing, since this book is not an encyclopedia of all possible Benedict Option implementations, but merely an attempt to get the party started, literally and figuratively.

So I think that everyone who has any interest whatsoever in the Benedict Option should read this book, to either apply versions of Libresco’s ideas himself, or to use her ideas as the springboard for fresh variations—and maybe then to write a second book on the topic, or start a blog, or do something.  For nothing for nothing, and nothing’s free.  Unless people take the first steps, the Benedict Option is just a discussion idea for frustrated Christians, no different than wishing through the bottom of a wine glass that the kingdom of Louis IX return in glory to implement Catholic integralism.

Thus, friendly criticism of the Benedict Option such as that leveled by Noah Millman is off base.  Millman suggests that advocates of the Benedict Option are not serious unless they take their kids out of public school, create “wealthy, independent institutions from communal property,” and adopt distinctive dress.  But right now only small changes, small groups, and the laying of foundations can be expected, not the building of a new Cluny.  Bigger changes come after, and it is likely that dramatic change, and real sacrifice, will only become part of the Benedict Option when Christians are driven to it.  Very few people tried to flee Pompeii until the pyroclastic flow was upon them.  It is probably only when the active persecutions of all orthodox Christians begin (rather than the spotty ones we have now) that the Benedict Option will gain more traction, and actions like wearing distinctive dress seem like the right course.  True, such delay is not desirable, for it is procrastination, and procrastination kills.  But until that which we fear has come upon us, human nature is to wait a little, wait a little.

Yes, some other groups, such as Orthodox Jews, and the Mormons, already adopt practices such as those Millman identifies.  This would seem to suggest that orthodox Christians could also now adopt similar practices and structures.  But both Jews and Mormons have living memories of extreme persecution; Christians in America do not.  They are in uncharted territory, so their procrastination is natural and nearly inevitable.

Still, Millman is correct that the Benedict Option, to be robust, will ultimately have to adopt such practices and build such structures.  There is no doubt that sort of thing is necessary for real success (which, in short, means the transmission of Christianity and reality-based life through the crash of modernity).  Institutions should be the goal, rather than being Christians in the catacombs.  But it is not monasteries, physical institutional centers like Cluny, that should be the aimed-for model; the Middle Ages are gone.  Probably what is called for, building on the foundations set up by ideas like Libresco’s, is something like a decentralized type of Galt’s Gulch (without the Objectivism), where Benedict Option ideas on a local level are assisted and coordinated by a wealthy mothership through modern communication.  But given inertia as the threshold hurdle, if you can’t organize Friday night dinners, it’s a bit harder to imagine ever building an actual, “wealthy, independent institution,” so Libresco’s book matters.  Millman is making the perfect the enemy of the good, or, perhaps, insisting on hitting a triple when a base hit will do to start.

Let’s get on to enemies.  As it stands, to the extent they are aware of it, the Benedict Option is hated by the lords of this world against whose liquid modernity the Benedict Option is designed to defend, just as they hate all orthodox Christians, the more so in degree to their effectiveness in living their beliefs and passing them on to others.  But were the Benedict Option to get any traction, if groups such as those outlined in Libresco’s book form widely and begin to form any kind of interlocking movement, and even more so if institutions begin to form, the Benedict Option will start to receive real attention, and not nice attention.  The mere existence of any set of virtuous people is a reproach to the ideology of modernity and threatens the Gleichschaltung that is required by the oligarchy of the powerful, the Leviathan, or Cthulhu, state.  Even more reproachful and threatening are multiple sets of such people, acting in a way that is coordinated formally or informally.  None of that cannot be tolerated, for the only thing that cannot be tolerated is intolerance.  It is not merely that intermediary institutions in general are disfavored by the modern state, as threats to its making all people dependent on it.  More than that, there can be only one triumphant vision of the world and the teleology of man; matter and anti-matter cannot co-exist.  Even a modestly successful Benedict Option will be cast as a threat to the state, which it is, since the state is increasingly the executive branch of evil.  Takers of the Benedict Option will be the American Falun Gong, and this treatment will escalate when, as the modern state inevitably cracks in the time of troubles, scapegoats are sought.

Attacks on the Benedict Option will be merely a subset of such attacks, though, which will equally be levied on all orthodox Christians, as well as on other groups, especially Mormons, and perhaps on devout Jews and Muslims as well (though there the analysis is somewhat different).  Key to understanding the appropriate response, however, is that when this will happen remains to be seen.  It is now just a possible future, and today we can still see in embryo all possible futures.  Given that calls to send Christians to the lions again are merely aborning—now a baker persecuted here, a few score Apple employees there—time remains to burn off the rot, though Dreher is not wrong, that the hour is late.  However great their merit, Libresco’s dinners will not act as the needed cleansing fire—the Benedict Option’s purpose is not to fight, but to carry the light of virtue and goodness through the coming time of trouble.  To ensure the vigorous survival of Christianity and Western civilization, intertwined sources of nearly everything that has driven man forward for fifteen hundred years, and to have the best chance of shortening that time of troubles, we must also be prepared to forge a sword, to be placed in the hand of a new creature, fierce Behemoth raised to fight evil Leviathan.

I have said much more along these lines in my earlier review of The Benedict Option itself; I will not repeat myself here, but you can (and should) go read the review, which has held up well over the past twenty months, I think (you may want to add my relevant thoughts on Carl Schmitt’s writings on enemies, too).  Libresco addresses enemies, but only in passing.  She quotes one of her attendees, “Of course, whatever we do, the Leviathan State will eventually turn its eye on us and crush us.”  Libresco’s response is that “I could grant that was true of the weirdest (and even some of the less weird) BenOp ideas my friends had floated, [such as an underground nurse service or communal living]. . . . But I was darned sure that there were plenty of ways for us to care for each other, pray for each other, and become more like Christ that were way too boring for the state to care about.”  The problem with this brush-off is that the Cthulhu state’s objection is not to substance; the state is not interested in parsing “approved” and “not-approved” elements of the Benedict Option.  No, while with the Emperor Julian the modern state may find it useful, or even disconcerting, that Christians care for each other, their real objection is to the reproach and threat they pose simply by what they believe, and the specifics of what they do are completely irrelevant.

Dreher has also addressed enemies.  Although in 2015, before he wrote the book, he expressed concern at this problem, more recently he has said “Some Benedict Option critics think they’re making a meaningful argument against it when they say some version of, ‘Ah ha, what do you think is going to happen to your little communities when the State decides they are a public danger, huh?’ It’s a reasonable point, but a weak one. It is precisely when the State decides that traditional Christians are a danger to it that the Benedict Option is going to be most needed.  But it is still needed up until that time—which may never come—because our faith is not being taken away from us by the State; it is being dissolved by the ambient culture. . . .”  He thus calls for us to “develop resilient practices and institutions capable of enduring what’s to come, and keeping the faith alive.”

Certainly the Benedict Option on the path Libresco outlines is a great, and necessary, response to the ambient culture.  And I am all for such resilient practices and institutions.  But they won’t endure what’s to come by their mere existence, and therefore preparation for overt conflict is also necessary.  Why, as I say, I outline in my original review, along with what to do about it, drawn in broad strokes, whose precision will necessarily become greater as the day darkens.  By “conflict” I mean not merely some form of prickly engagement with the state and the culture that has bred it, though that is certainly necessary, but also preparing for what is likely, violence.  The shape of this is unclear and could involve not merely the response of persecuted Christians but a general descent into societal fracture, in which takers of the Benedict Option are swept up, in part for defense and in part helping to remake the world.  We’ll find out the details when we get there; it’s present-day mental and physical preparation, in cooperation with Benedict Option principles, that’s the key.  As Lenin said, timing is all, and with Lenin, our job is to prepare, and be prepared to act, not to wait until some nasty combination of North Korea and Brave New World wholly crushes those opposed to the moral dictates of the Cthulhu state.

Still, I don’t think that my call for grasping that violence may be coming necessarily means that every Benedict Option group must have an armed wing, like the African National Congress’s “Spear of the Nation,” though a primarily defensive armed wing, for those inclined to such things, is definitely a good idea.  After all, for some Benedict Option groups, Shakespeare films could be their cup of tea; for others, marksmanship competitions.  And from that the modern equivalent of military orders, sworn brotherhoods of armed Christians, could be raised quickly at need.  Certainly, it is a bit early to go all John Brown.  Early, though, not inherently inappropriate.  Maybe it will never be necessary.  Maybe it would be futile.  Maybe peaceful example is a better path, though history teaches us otherwise, and G. K. Chesterton predicted the opposite,
in reaction to the oppression of “cold mechanic happenings”:
“Likelier the barricades shall blare / Slaughter below and smoke above, / And death and hate and hell declare / That men have found a thing to love.”  Nothing for nothing, and nothing’s free.


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