The British answer to the Benedict Option
The instinct to turn away from mainstream society is found far beyond American Christians
Inclusion in the news pages of the Sunday Times is a neat test for whether something is considered mainstream-relevant in the UK. So readers might have been a bit surprised yesterday to be learning about groups of American Christians who are turning their backs on wider culture and forming small monk-like communities in rural parts of the country. The reporter, Josh Glancy, is refreshingly free of the common prejudice against anything religious-sounding, and rightly thought the story relevant to his readers:
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Such communities are springing up all over America, from Alaska to Texas to the suburbs of Washington.
Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative magazine, describes this trend as taking the “Benedict option”, also the name of his 2017 book, one of the most talked about religious publications of the decade.
This may all sound very alien to British ears, particularly as the UK is now one of the most secular countries on the planet. Nobody realistically thinks Brits are about to repair to monasteries in significant number (although both the Guardian and BBC reported in depth this past summer on a vibrant Bruderhof community in Sussex.)
But the instinct behind these movements — to turn your back on the shared culture because it feels so far away from what you believe that it feels futile to even engage — is a powerful force in today’s politics. If we have learned anything from the Brexit experience it was that people feel alienated by structures that are too distant, and global value systems that don’t feel relevant. Brexit has given some people hope that they can reclaim them.
The funny thing is that the surge in people taking the ‘Benedict Option’ is happening because of, not despite, contemporary liberal society: value questions have gradually been removed from the public sphere and become private concerns, confined to religious communities, the nuclear family, or increasingly just the individual. If you want to live among people who share similar values, you have to seek out or create that world for yourself.
Perhaps the biggest political question of the next decade is whether we can refashion a shared public square that actually feels relevant to most people, or whether people will simply give up on it, and retreat to their own little worlds, Benedict-style. I understand why the people featured in the article have decided to turn inward, but personally I still hold a naive hope that we can revive the public realm so as to rediscover some of what Hannah Arendt calls the “vita activa” — the shared project of creating a good society.
Thank you for bringing up this topic. Vitally important. The point to note is that the “Benedict Option” needs to be distinguished. There are monks, who really do intend to leave the world. Then there are every-day Christians who want to live close to the monks, and rejuvenate society from the ground up. These are NOT leaving the world, considered as the ordinary run of family, commerce, politics etc. They want to live worldly lives, and think this is the right setting in which to do so. They are explicitly interested in “the shared project of creating a good society,” to use your phrase. (Well, so are the monks, but not in way you mean.)
So Dreher’s use of the phrase “Benedict Option” for laymen is very misleading, and threatens to hamstring the conversation from the outset. I don’t have a catchier phrase in mind, but I propose that the conversation be reframed like this: If we are to rediscover the common project of a good society, can we do so only from the ground up, or also partly from the top down?
It’s interesting to find this topic explored in UnHeard. As a young man, I subjected my family on frequent vacation trips to sites founded in the U.S. by intentional communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of these places were established by immigrants for economic or spiritual reasons, but as leadership and societal dynamics changed, they did not last long. Old Economy and Amana existed for 75 and 100 years respectively. Some of those founded in the 20th century still exist. As the article points out, the “Benedict Option” may again be providing an opportunity for those who want to exit exisiting structures and build new heavens on earth, whether economic or spiritual. I find it curious that financially challenged citizens in urban or rural settings don’t make more use of communal opportunities to strengthen their prospects. Likewise, for those who seek more intentionality in their discipleship than traditional denominations offer, small groups may provide a path. The movements that are currently being established may have interesting influences on society even if they do not survive as a named entity. In any case, thanks for noting a development that has always had many precursors around the world.
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