Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox Christian priest, considers Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option" and finds it wanting, specifically in its misunderestimation of the modern cultural zeitgeist against which it is pitted.
Fr. Freeman begins by acknowledging that claims of civilizational decline (such as Dreher regularly airs) are and have been a recurrent trope:
The myth of fallen Rome has overshadowed modern thought almost from the beginning. It is the story of civilizational collapse, an image that seems to haunt our imagination. It “rhymes” with the world we live in, whether you favor the Left or the Right. For conservative thinkers (such as [Rod] Dreher) the lesson seems clear. The barbarians have indeed been governing us for quite a while, and unless we get on with some sort of recovery plan, we will be lost in a sea of barbarians.
But, says Fr. Freeman, a culture is never just "in decline". Every culture has its particular virtues, however reprehensible they may seem to dissenters:
To a certain extent, all civilizations have virtues. No matter where you live (or how you live), you learn things that enable you to survive. If you live in a ghetto dominated by organized crime, you will likely acquire abilities to cope (or you die). They may include lying, murder, theft, etc. In a culture of ruthlessness, to be ruthless is a “virtue” of sorts. The meanest flourish.
Our culture, our civilization, is not quite so ruthless. Rather, it prizes autonomy and material gain (lying and theft are, depending on your view of capitalism, either bugs or features of such a culture):
Our modern culture requires its own version of virtues for success. We are a consumer economy, highly individualistic with a deep regard for sentiment. The landscape of our world has evolved in response to these fundamental realities. Values and practices that fall outside of that model are difficult to nurture and sustain. Human beings are largely creatures of habit. If the structures of our world support a certain form of virtue, then that is the most likely path we will follow. We do so because it is the most natural way to live.
In other words, the "Benedict Option" isn't just counter-cultural; it's all but incomprehensible for people whose values and virtues quite naturally reflect the structures of the modern West:
An American suburb is not a European village of Late Antiquity. Every aspect of a suburb’s existence is designed to serve and nurture consumers. [Stanley]Hauerwas once described the modern family as a “group of people who agree to cohabit for the purpose of watching television.” That, of course, dates the quote. It would be more accurate today to say that it is a group of people who agree to cohabit for the purpose of sharing bandwidth.
[Our communities today are] structured to nurture the virtues of individualism. People learn to structure their lives to withstand loneliness. A good medical plan helps. A reliable automobile is a necessity. Those who want to flourish must be willing to relocate. The economy cares very little for geography. To be able to relocate means that children must be prepared to adapt to new schools. Extended family must be sacrificed (on my street, only three families have more than one generation in town).
Fr. Freeman notes that Rod Dreher is far from the first to call for a refusal of modern values:
Americans are no stranger to intentional communities, particularly religious Americans. Our history has been replete with such communities from Plymouth to Jamestown to the Shakers, the Amana Folk, and any number of communards of the 60’s (of whom I am one). They are, on the whole, an unnatural effort to do a very natural thing.
But, says Fr. Freeman, most Americans have already made their choice:
We already live in intentional communities: they are called “suburbs,” and they nurture us in the suburban “virtues.”
Which makes Dreher's task that much more difficult:
Place, habit, economy and a host of “unintentional” things will overwhelm every counter-intention, no matter how well-grounded in Christian teaching. Practices always do their work. The practices of suburban life are not productive of Christian virtue. They were designed to serve a different God...we will make little headway unless and until we recognize that the modern American suburban life (in its many aspects) is a moral choice.
Virtue is a very natural thing. It is acquired slowly, frequently without great intention, through repeated practices and habits. Those who worry about the collapse of civilization have become too lofty in their thoughts. It is the collapse of the parish 1 that matters just now.
It would be unkind to point out that Rod Dreher, marketing the heck out of his new book, is very much a part of, and in synch with, the culture he decries.2 Instead, risking hubris, let us paraphrase Bruce Springsteen:
And them suburban girls sure look pretty
The cripple on the corner cries out "Nickels for your pity"
And them downtown boys they sure talk gritty
It's so hard to be a saint in the suburbs
1 For "parish," feel free to read "local community": lament globally, Fr. Freeman seems to say, but work locally if you want to repair the fabric of your culture. Also, stop driving fifteen minutes to Walmart to shop; everyday low prices be damned, try walking to a local retailer instead--what you lose at the register, you more than make up for in exercise and in connection to your surroundings and your community.
2 It may also be unkind (but it is not inaccurate) to note that Dreher's religious journey is very much a modern one: from Methodism to agnosticism to Roman Catholicism to Orthodox Christianity, Dreher is the very model of a modern religious shopper.