April 6th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The NSW election and our incredible shrinking farming sector

SOCIETY The pervasive and pernicious online porn epidemic

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coffers are full but Treasurer will take spending cautiously

OPINION Judge treats Cardinal Pell to a spot of 'open justice'

NATIONAL AFFAIRS NSW Liberals re-election gives a boost to Morrison

ECONOMICS The Great Dragon uncoils all around the globe

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS President Donald Trump: an unlikely promise keeper Part 2

REFLECTION On the conviction of Cardinal Pell

FICTION Orange Years: The Japie Greyling Story

TERRORISM Lessons from Christchurch

ASIAN AFFAIRS Xi's imperious play prompts U.S. to repair Asian friendships

YPAT Getting with the program: one young person's story

MUSIC To market, to market, to sell a good song

CINEMA The LEGO Movie 2: Building a world

BOOK REVIEW A template for living alongside the world

BOOK REVIEW Catholic Maryland and early tolerance



THE BUDGET Take your tax cuts and be merry, for tomorrow ... is another day

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A template for living alongside the world

News Weekly, April 6, 2019

THE BENEDICT OPTION: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

by Rod Dreher

Sentinel, New York
Paperback: 262 pages
Price: AUD$38.99

Reviewed by David Daintree

Once in a while Providence throws up a splendid synchronicity of famous births. The second-last decade of the fifth century (480–490 AD) was one such special time. What other period and place in history has produced three people whose influence on the centuries to come has been as potent and far-reaching as Cassiodorus, Boethius and St Benedict?

Cassiodorus was an educational inno­vator who founded a scholarly community called Vivarium. Making books was a primary task. He saw no conflict between the Gospel and the noblest achievements of the secular and pagan world, believing that the latter too had God at their root.

Boethius died in prison in 524, leaving behind his personal manifesto, On the Consolation of Philosophy, one of the most widely read and influential books in the Christian world.

The third is St Benedict, writer of the famous Rule, and effective founder of Western monasticism. Like Cassio­dorus, he was tolerant of secular learning provided that it was morally consistent with the values of Christianity. Copying books in the scriptoria of Benedictine monasteries became an important charism (as we would now say) of monastic life and as a result all we possess of the learning of the ancient world of Western Europe comes to us through the hands of his monks and their successors. All we possess – a huge claim, but a true one.

What a time that was! These three great men had a fourth contemporary, the Emperor Justinian (born 482), whose generals spent 20 years campaigning up and down the length of Italy to overthrow the barbarian invaders and restore Rome and the whole peninsula to the Empire. It was a venture enormously expensive in gold and lives and its success was tragically short lived.

Boethius never lived to see those two decades of terrible conflict, but Cassiodorus and Benedict did, and Benedict’s Rule was written amidst that world of violent chaos.

Rod Dreher’s remarkable book takes as its starting point the life and times of Benedict, and his response to catastrophic change. Dreher draws a comparison between the sixth century and the present one that, in my view, is flawed for three reasons. First, Christianity in Benedict’s day was on the ascendant; it was on the up beat, while in our age it is distinctly in decline, at least in the West. Second, it was not a period of rampant materialism, but quite the reverse: their world was not a happy, confident or contented one. Life held little of the alluring charm that makes our age think that it can do without the spiritual dimension.

Third, it was not nearly as hostile to religion as ours is. Pagans and heretics abounded, but the disposition of the heart was generally sympathetic to the religious impulse.

Dreher is an American writer whose primary focus is, understandably, on the United States, but whose observations and concerns are readily applicable to countries like Australia that belong to the same tradition. These are nations whose formative heritage is Western European, but which are now post-Christian, increasingly secular and strongly materialistic. His statistics on cultural practices that he regards as fundamentally inimical to the Christian Faith (such as sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, addiction to technology, and the single-minded pursuit of wealth) closely correspond to our own perceptions.

We may draw some slight relief from the feeling that things sound even worse in the U.S., but that won’t console us for long: we are close on their heels and our comparatively small population means that new and strange doctrines can be assimilated and can saturate us more swiftly.

Even if that basic comparison between two centuries 1,500 years apart is faulty, his conclusions remain firm. Christians must recognise that they are now a small and declining minority, that their world is increasingly hostile to them, and that all indications are that the situation will worsen, not improve.

We are indeed on the down beat. We must separate ourselves from the world on our own terms before our enemies overwhelm us on theirs.

How is this to be done? Dreher’s book is packed with ideas about the forming of Christian communities. They can’t be listed in a brief review, but some major points can be extracted.

Dreher is realistic, for example, about politics. It will never again be our refuge and defence: “Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not the solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.” (p79)

This is a hard saying. But life in the old USSR and its satellites plumbed depths that we may have to follow. Dreher is much influenced by Czech dissident and first president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel, who tells of a greengrocer who put a sign in his shop window saying: “Workers of the World, Unite!”

The greengrocer doesn’t necessarily hold the sentiment. He just doesn’t want trouble. He will “live within a lie” by concealing his own beliefs, where they differ from the official line, to protect himself and his family (p92).

Can this happen here? We have already heard of printers and florists who have been prosecuted for their opposition to the redefinition of marriage. It is not hard to foresee a world in which the suppression of unfashionable opinions will extend further, and with greater ferocity.

Dreher believes passionately in the creating of strong Christian social structures in which the faith can thrive unsullied by the world. But separating ourselves from the world is also fraught with dangers. He tells us of a young woman who, together with all her siblings, became an atheist. She was a good friend and she gave him some painful advice: “I wish you good luck with the Benedict Option … but please tell parents that, if they want their kids to stay Christian, not to do what mine did. They smothered us and made us rebels.” (p129)

This, I think, is one of the saddest things in the book. We all know of young people who have followed a similar course in reaction to the devotedness of their parents. Dreher gives sound advice on how to avoid such a tragic outcome, but it’s not foolproof by any means and human parenting is such a difficult task, so very subject to the frailties of the human temperament.

The author’s varied recommendations about the bringing up of children are perhaps best summarised by two powerful and uncompromising pieces of advice: take your children out of public schools; and strictly curtail access to the internet.

Dreher believes that the state school system has been hopelessly surrendered to the values of secular materialism. Even “Christian schools” have in many cases been compromised. He cites instances of such schools in which only 20 per cent of the student body practises their faith.

At least believers in such schools have a degree of companionship, but it is clear that Dreher’s preference is for home-schooling – despite the risks alluded to in the preceding paragraph. Of the internet, little need be said. All young people have easy access to hard-core pornography and very large numbers regularly avail themselves of it.

The style of the book is anecdotal, reminiscent of the American “textbook for life” going back to Norman Vincent Peel’s Power of Positive Thinking and beyond. The piling up of the opinions of famous thinkers is a powerful way of arguing a case, but there is a certain glibness about it that is not fully satisfying.

One often feels that the other side could do as well using its own sources. There has to be something more to carry the weight of the argument.

But the anecdotal style, if it is occasionally irritating, should not be allowed to detract from the force of the book as a whole. Dreher is a committed Christian, a conservative Evangelical by upbringing, who became a Roman Catholic and is now a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. His has been a long and varied faith journey. He boldly presents us with a picture of Christianity within the U.S. (and kindred countries) that is bleak and dismal in the extreme.

We are cowed into silence by “progressive” social dogmas that openly seek to subvert traditional values. Even our big corporations and town councils toe the politically correct line and increasingly force their employees to do likewise.

And most of us are in denial: can things be as black as he paints them? Like most readers, I hope not, but I fear Dreher has nailed it.

There is perhaps one ray of hope. Dreher wrote his book before the Jordan Peterson phenomenon burst upon the world. I don’t know if Peterson is a Christian. I rather suspect he is, but we Christians are advised to be not only as gentle as doves but as cunning as serpents; and, if my hunch is right, Peterson knows that an outright profession of Christianity would be the end of his reputation in many sympathetic circles.

But what matters is that Peterson is an outspoken and effective advocate of reason, justice and free speech. His success has been extraordinary and his triumphs in debate stunning. He has emboldened many who had feared to speak out.

I read The Benedict Option in a state of sadness, depression, optimism and excitement. It is an important contribution to the defence (and we hope restoration) of the Christian worldview. Ours is a post-Christian world, certainly, but to read Dreher’s book in a post-Peterson world is a slightly less grim experience than it would once have been.

David Daintree is Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies in Hobart.

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