“Vexilla Regis Prodeunt Inferni”

Uncle Chuckie meets the Benedict Option

My friend Rod Dreher has struck again. He has this horrible habit of writing books that I am supposed to dislike and failing miserably because I end up liking them. The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation is no exception.

This one is different in one important way from his previous works. I am not the market. I’m really not the market. I’m the Enemy.

Now, when I say that, I do not mean that I, the person Uncle Chuckie, am the enemy. I may represent all the things that the Enemy is but Rod is a good friend and regularly prays for me to see the light. So, ok, now that you are totally confused, I’m going to try to give a little background.

Rod is an Orthodox Christian. He really is. He does not just talk it, he lives it. His Christianity informs his life, his writing and his reactions to the world around him. The world around him terrifies him. It should. If it did not there would be something wrong with his Christianity. Not for him is the armored fist of Cosimanian Orthodoxy smashing the opposition and I would be shocked beyond belief if he were to adopt it. What this means is that what we celebrate, he recoils in horror from.

It is a radically different view of the world and of history.

To read this book, I had to put off the helmet and enter Rod’s world as Rod sees his world, not as I see it. For example, Rod defines Western Civilization in Christian terms where I define it as an ongoing entity of which Christianity was a major part of but not the defining part. What he sees as the decline and collapse of the West I see as merely a transformation into a new era of the triumphant West. It was necessary to look around that and not be distracted from what Rod is saying because Rod has managed to write what could be the most influential book for a Christian, and non-Christian, audience in a very long time.

Rod is a smart guy. He knows that the days of Christianity as the dominant cultural paradigm are closing. They are not going to close tomorrow but they are closing. What will replace it is not known. Maybe it will be Cosimanian Orthodoxy but if it is I will not live to see it. These things take a lot of time. The triumph of Christianity took hundreds of years and it had to defeat a lot of contenders. No one can say what will replace it.

Rod has a very good chapter on how things have reached this point. It is too short. He was limited by the length of the book he had contracted for and that chapter alone could have filled it and more. I will confess the prospect of reading that chapter filled me with dread. Rod is not an historian. I am. I was an historian before I became a crackpot inventor who let a hobby take over his life and I expected this chapter to make absolute hash of intellectual history.

It does not. It is a good, extremely concise, overview of the collapse of Medieval belief and the rise of Modernism. I would like Rod to sit down and turn this chapter into its own book someday.

It is the rest of the book that is useful. His study of the role of community in social life is excellent. He also realizes that there is potential downside to community and he tries to head that off. I’m not sure he does that all that well. It would have taken him too far afield from his purpose in writing the book but that he recognizes the possibility puts him miles ahead of other writers who would say, “Utopia is this way!” Rod knows better than that.

The whole point of the book, as I see it, is how does a minority belief resist the tyranny of the majority. How does it function in a world that rejects it and may consider it pernicious? How do you live without hard power and the soft power of persuasion only runs into a mute button or is shouted down?

No one has ever addressed this, at least not in a couple thousand years. The traditional, Western method has always been to seize power and then remove the opposition. This book is addressed to those who are not in a position to do that and while written for a Christian audience, the methods and principles will work for anyone.

If there is a major weakness in the volume it is in Rod’s view of technology. No one, ever, has managed to control technology. Religious attempts have, except for certain Amish and other communities, been utterly dashed to pieces and have been since the Church attempted to ban the crossbow at the Fourth Lateran Conference. Preachers thundered against reading novels. People read novels. Preachers thundered against radio. People listened to the radio. Preachers thundered against television. We all know how well that worked out. If Rod thinks his communities will be any more successful he is living in a far different world than the one the rest of us inhabit. On the contrary, such control efforts may prove to be the rock that they are dashed to pieces against.

That leads us to the ultimate problem with the Benedict Option. It presumes that those in it will always be good people, dedicated to their vision and their God. That is just not true of humans. Things can go wrong. Things can go very wrong. Rod the man knows this. Rod the author seems to have forgotten it, at least in this volume. He could not cover everything in 75,000 words. What happens when a particularly charismatic leader loses it and decides he is the Voice of God? What happens when there is a nasty divorce and all the dirty laundry of a group becomes viral on youtube? What happens when a child, raised with the best intentions in the world, writes a book, “The Benedict Option Ruined My Life?”

This not intended as a criticism of the volume and certainly not of Rod. It is the recognition that we live in a far different universe than Benedict of Norcia inhabited. Benedict, while living in a time of the collapse of the Western Empire, existed in the time when Christianity was in the ascendent and rising higher. Classical Paganism was in full collapse and the paganism of the barbarians, who, in spite of the bizarre words of Rieff, were certainly aware of their tribal heritages, wanted what was left of Rome and that included conversion to one of the two versions of Christianity, Arianism or the Athanasian Heresy. (Ok, I had to get one in.) Worshiping at the Shrine of Apollo was not on the program. Benedict was greeted with acclaim for his holiness. In our age he would probably get a different and much less friendly response not only from foe, but if some of the reviews of this book are an indication, from those he thought his friends. Frankly, if the folks in Benedict’s day behaved like the folks in our time he probably would have been burned at the stake.

We are living in a time of civilizational transformation. Christianity, in any of its forms, is no longer the only game in town. Its words often fail to persuade and it usually lacks the power to coerce. Often it is the opposite, which is why the book was written in the first place. The real civilizational battle now is what is going to replace Christianity as the dominant religion and what, if any, will be the place of Christianity in that future, when the Gates of Hell will have seemed to prevail. The strength of this book is that it advises hunkering down for the long term. The weakness is not in the book itself but in the assumption that at some future time the folks of the Benedict Option will emerge to rebuild Western Civilization that has collapsed. But what if Western Civilization does not collapse but changes in ways that make what the Benedict Option has to offer merely irrelevant curiousities of a bygone age, as alien to the men of that time as the days of St. Benedict are to us?

When Men walk the stars as easily as to the corner store and look at a mountain and say, “Take a little off the top and leave the sideburns,” what will the Benedict Option have to say that they will be interested in hearing? In “The Year of Our Ford” who will care?

We do not know. To Rod, the effort must be made and as his friend I wish him well though I believe it will fail.

That all been said, read this book. You will find it interesting even if at times mystifying and infuriating.

Now, for one minor but funny aside. I found the subtitle, “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World” interesting for the simple reason that back in 1988 I wrote small manual as part of a larger project with the subtitle, “A Strategy for the Age of Chaos.” Seems one of us has been onto something.

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3 Responses to ““Vexilla Regis Prodeunt Inferni””

  1. donnalrc Says:

    Brilliant;  as ever, Dearest.

  2. Mark Says:

    Whats your opinion on the so-called altright? Do you think they have any chance of succeeding?

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