The Benedict Option and the Media Ecology of Rod Dreher

The Benedict Option and the Media Ecology of Rod Dreher

Any Benedict Option that fails to deal honestly and forcefully with our relationship to technology and popular culture will fail.

—Rod Dreher

When Benedict of Nursia left Rome he traveled forty miles south of the city and entered a forest to pray. From there he began to build monasteries: fortresses to preserve Christian culture against the barbarians that descended upon Europe.

When Alasdair MacIntyre put the period on After Virtue outlining the failure of the Enlightenment three decades ago he did so with these words: “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”

Dreher and the Benedict Option

So begins the quest of Saint Benedict and so ends the assessment of Alasdair MacIntyre.

Enter American writer and journalist Rod Dreher who picked up MacIntyre’s challenge over ten years ago when he wrote Crunchy Cons. At that time he said:

If you ask me, it’s time that we become our own Benedicts. Why not? We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, including nothing else than (in Robert Hutchins’s phrase) the hearts of our children, and as much as custody of civilization that is fading, but which may one day return if we live well and hold fast.

Of late Dreher has been beating Benedict’s drum; he is even writing a book about the Benedict Option. He reported last year in a December 7 The American Conservative blog spot that almost to forty percent of committed Christians say they support the BenOp. Furthermore, almost thirty percent say they are undecided about it and are therefore persuadable.

In short, the Benedict Option (BenOp) purports that Christians adopt a more consciously countercultural stance towards our post-Christian society. One important underlying assumption of for BenOpters is that the Enlightenment project, which seeks to replace tradition with moral rules grounded in the self, has utterly failed. BenOpters acknowledge that Christians have lost their majority status in the West and now the best thing to do is circle the wagons, raise our kids more purposefully, form our own communities, and take church life more seriously.

One might think this is nothing more than the “Christ Against Culture” stance reflected in Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (1951), that is to say, the Quaker Option, the Mennonite Option, and the Amish Option.

Think again. Dreher claims he is not giving up on the culture or asking Christians to head for the hills. Rather, he is on a quest to hold out models that might serve as counterweights to the consumer-driven, spiritually deforming anti-cultures that now surround us. Separation for preservation and perhaps eventual transformation best describes the BenOp outlook. A key component of the BenOp outlook is the notion of hospitality, that our Christian communities of distinction should welcome the world as their special, if curious, guests. What this might look like in the flesh is uncertain, is still in development, and will vary according to religious traditions.

Dreher points to several contemporary communities trying to do it: Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma, St. John Orthodox cathedral in Alaska, Trinity Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and Rutba House in North Carolina. By no means is this a complete list. Dreher highlights a new community with regularity insisting that the BenOp has to be “something ordinary people can do in their own circumstances.”

Dreher as Media Ecologist

Last August Dreher made the observation that any BenOp effort that “fails to deal honestly and forcefully with our relationship to technology and popular culture will fail.” Crunchy Cons demonstrates Dreher is au courant with media ecological matters, especially the work of Neil Postman.

Noting the central argument of Technopoly Dreher agrees with Postman that America as a society has structurally surrendered its soul and its liberty to technology. “The word ‘structurally’ is important,” says Dreher, “because in Postman’s view, we have constructed our economy, our society, and even our way of seeing reality to serve technology.”

Dreher is mindful of the thrust of Postman’s scholarship when notes how conservatives get their dander up over television’s content, when in fact this misses the real point of television’s power. Quoting Postman, he says those who rant about salacious programming “are like the house dog munching peacefully on the meat while the house is looted.”

Dreher holds out Second Nature’s Co-Founder and Editorial Board Chairman Read Mercer Schuchardt as an example of a person who consciously limits media consumption for his family. Like Schuchardt, Dreher has chosen not to have a television in his home. “The withdrawal was difficult,” Dreher confesses in Crunchy Cons, “I was jittery and easily distracted. The monastic quiet unnerved me. But gradually I reconciled myself to it, and came to love it.”

One of the more interesting insights Dreher touches upon in his interviews for Crunchy Cons is how television erodes our sense of place. While urbanites and suburbanites have a romantic view of rural or small-town life, electronic media, especially television, forms the moral and social cues for everyone, so that no one can escape its tentacles unless you exercise the off button. Television also teaches us that anywhere else is a better place to live than where you are now.

Dreher views television as part-and-parcel of market forces that conservatives tend to under estimate. Crunchy Cons was written out of a sense of frustration that many Republicans are as committed to the Enlightenment project–in its current grandiloquent stateas Democrats. “Modern conservatism has become to focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff,” says Dreher in his Crunchy Con Manifesto. “Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.”

Practicing Asceticism in Community

Dreher also states in the Manifesto: “The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.”

Practicing asceticism. In other words, turn it off and go do something else. Saint Benedict himself could not have plucked a better phrase. And of course it must be done in community. “It’s all well and good for you to keep your kid from watching some trashy TV show,” says Dreher in Crunchy Cons, “but if all the other parents on the block are letting their kids watch it, your gesture loses its power to socialize your child according to your own mores.”

When Dreher spoke about the Benedict Option at Union University in Tennessee this past October he was asked by one of the faculty if a BenOp community would censor its members from television. He paused and then reminded the audience of the power of the off button. When pressed further he admitted that enforcing a community-wide turn-off, as the Amish do, would be an overreach in community leadership.

And yet, Dreher accentuated the dilemma succinctly when he observed that even if you are controlling the pollution valve in your own home, this private action does not ensure your next-door neighbor is doing the same thing. With Catholic and Protestant clergy alike confessing that pornography addiction is the largest problem among their congregants, it is easy to see why Dreher puts a big question mark on the entire BenOp Project should its adherents bungle this matter.

For example, in a recent American Conservative blog post titled “Tinder Mercenaries” Dreher quotes a Vanity Fair article regarding a new dating app now being used by college students to enhance their sexual hookups. According to the Vanity Fair piece dating for some youth has devolved into a type of behavior found among porn users: “People are gorging . . . You could call it a kind of psychosexual obesity.”

What caught Dreher off guard was his discovery that the app was being used at a particular Christian college. Most of us who have children know how difficult it is to control electronic devices at home in a culture where preteens spend four hours in front of a screen and teens spend upwards to seven hours.

The Technological Challenge is the Educational Challenge

Is it possible, then, to become our own Benedicts in community without collectively limiting electronic media usage? The answer to his question may be found in the organic structure of a BenOp community and the way it articulates its mission and commissions its consortiums.

If we can assume that a BenOp community consists primarily of a church (or churches), schools, and homes—ideally in local proximity—then each consortium would benefit if they were on the same page. Dreher recognizes that utopianism and cults of personality should be avoided like the plague when building BenOp communities, so it only stands to reason that members are for the most part philosophically like-minded and the organizational structure is democratic.

The technological challenge is actually an educational challenge, as Postman has consistently pointed out in his writings. There seems to be some suppositional overlap between BenOpters and Classical Christian School proponents, enough at least to include in any BenOp curriculum the virtues of prudence, temperance, and fortitude—all good equipment for exercising the off button.

A good dose of media ecology would also serve BenOp children well—Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan and others. The study of how symbols, codes, and media shape discourse for good or ill is an ancient one extending all the way back to perhaps the first BenOpters the Athenians. Since the Trivium consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric has always placed human communication at the center of its curriculum, media ecology is a natural fit for those looking for the right tools to build vibrant intentional communities of faith.

There are other challenges BenOpters will have to address should this movement sprout wings and takeoff, most of which are interrelated. This article has considered the technological challenge associated with conformity to negative influences found in the culture. BenOpters will also need to address what kinds of technologies can help build alternative communities. Wendell Berry and E. F. Schumacher may prove helpful here. Such technological challenges are also creative challenges, which are economic challenges, which are legal challenges—all part of the organic nature of communities Dreher seems to be describing and calling for.

Are you a BenOpter? Tell us so and post your take on the technological challenge.


Arthur W. Hunt III is professor of communications at The University of Tennessee at Martin and author of Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Manmade Environments (Pickwick, 2013). He also recently had a beer with Rod Dreher, seen here.

arthur hunt and rod dreher

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About the Contributor

Arthur Hunt

Arthur W. Hunt III
Arthur W. Hunt III is professor of communications at The University of Tennessee at Martin and author of Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Manmade Environments (Pickwick, 2013). 

Comments

  1. Years ago the bumper sticker Kill Your Television was popular, and I did. The last show I had any interest in was Mork and Mindy. I’m smart and flip enough not to have a cell phone of any sort. I drive a 11 yr old five speed Echo. This is my social media – no Twitter, Facebook, etc. And yet, I am still immersed in my family’s, friend’s, and culture’s use of all these things, and here I am typing a message to a discarnate audience who might be anywhere and respond as easily as my typing. The BenOp must consciously focus on maintaining the incarnate arts over the discarnate, the present over the absent, the disciplines of the hand, the sensitivities of the ear and eye in face-to-face conversation, and the health of the body in physical work and recreation. Both intimacy and community should be principally both proximate and tactile.

  2. Norm V. says:

    Thanks for a very insightful piece that puts Dreher’s bit in context

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