Monday, May 15, 2017

Chapter 8: Preparing for Hard Labor

St. Benedict was known for the phrase: ora et labora, prayer and work.  The Benedictines can teach us a thing or two about work, the subject of this chapter.

The modern world sees work in the wrong light: we both undervalue it, seeking to get rid of it, by automation or otherwise; and overvalue it, by spending too much time working, forgetting why we labor in the first place.  For the Benedictines: "A monk learns to do the task given to him for the greater glory of God and for the support of the community of believers."

Our secular culture not only values work incorrectly, it also seeks to enforce its rigid views of work on the rest of society.  Specifically, companies that fail to toe the line in regards to the dogma of the sexual revolution may find themselves in court.  Moreover, Dreher prophesies: "Public school teachers, college professors, doctors, and lawyers will all face tremendous pressure to capitulate to this ideology as a condition of employment."  He cautions Christian students to carefully consider what employment may entail in the years to come before embarking on a particular field of study.

He also abjures us to be prudent in choosing which hill to die on.  The cause of religious liberty will be bolstered if those who claim it do so with good reason--and behave with charity.  This may not be enough, but our aim should be about more than winning in court.  As St. Teresa of Calcutta said: "God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful."

Therefore, we ought to be bold.   In so doing, we may be able to gain time for religious liberty.  Here, I think Dreher sells his case short.  For two thousand years, Christians have given up their lives for the Gospel.  It is no small thing to lose one's job, but we should draw strength from the many courageous saints who underwent far tougher trials.  Besides, as Tertullian famously noted, the blood of the martyrs was seed for the Church.  Who is to say that the endurance of Christians under persecution may not again pay dividends?

In the meantime, Dreher extols us to be entrepreneurial.  If corporations decide to expel the heretics, we will need to work for smaller firms who will respect our right to retain private beliefs so long as we are valuable employees.  We can take advantage of the Internet to peddle our wares to like-minded people across the country or even the world.

There's nothing wrong with this advice, but I think this shows a misreading of MacIntrye.  Eking out a living on the web might be the best thing for one's family.  It's hard to see how it fits at all with "the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness."  On the contrary, for all the Internet has given us--such as the ability to discuss this book with a friend who lives hours away--it's integral to the liquid modernity Dreher elsewhere rightly decries.  This is just scraping by until Benedict comes along.

He also insists that we buy Christian, even if it costs more.  He notes that we should build Christian employment networks.  If someone is fired from a job, he should be able to turn to his church community to get him back on his feet.  Our parishes will need to be more than places of worship; they should provide support for all aspects of Christian living.

Dreher counsels us to rediscover the trades.  This is more to my liking, and I think closer in line with MacIntyre's vision.  This section focuses on the die setters of Elk County, Pennsylvania.  Work is good, land is cheap, and there is a classical Catholic school starting up nearby.  Sam MacDonald, a resident of Elk County who recently returned from D.C. where he was a journalist,  claims: "Industrialism is the new agrarianism.  It's not back to the land, but back to the trades."  Okay, so maybe not entirely in line with MacIntyre, but at least it's not office work.

Lastly, we need to prepare to be poorer and more marginalized.  We need to serve God first, even if it means giving up a bigger paycheck.  Hopefully, we're already prioritizing faith and family over the McMansion with the pool and the brand new luxury car.  (You hear that Rhen?)  "Given how much Americans have come to rely on middle-class comfort, freedom and stability, Christians will be sorely tempted to say or do anything asked of us to hold on to what we have."  But "that is the way of spiritual death."

Dreher's advice in this chapter is sound, but I wish he had thought bigger.  There's a conservatism to his project which keeps popping up.  It's not a dig on his book per se; indeed, his value is less that of guru and more that he's figuring this out like the rest of us.  But it gives one the impression of a holding pattern.  The medievals were capable of sustaining institutions like the guilds for centuries on end; we'll be fortunate to retain the same occupation--forget employer--over our lifetime.  It's unreasonable to expect Dreher to solve this, but I don't think he plumbs the depths of the absurdity of work in the modern world.  

Of course, since I'm a computer programmer, I can't exactly cast aspersions.  In any event, the next chapter examines Eros and the new Christian counterculture.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Chapter 7: Education as Christian Formation

In this chapter Dreher encourages us to consider building a parallel culture to that of the mainstream through Christian schooling, using the example of the Czechs and the Polish who attempted to do the same under Communist rule, with varying degrees of success. The time to do this is now, while we still have relatively high levels of freedom to do so.

This system starts with developing classical Christian academies to serve from the early years of kindergarten on up. Today’s public schools simply are not a good environment in which to raise Christian children.

The first problem is that public schools are oriented toward transcript-building and equipping children to succeed in the workforce, build a comfortable life, and achieve personal goals. That sounds nice on the surface level, but it completely ignores the following of God’s will and the importance of growing in virtue.

The second problem with public schools is that they simply produce test-taking conformists. They seem to be better suited to creating compliant factory line workers than creative critical thinkers.

Third, public schools are a breeding ground of toxic peer pressure that leads to ridiculous levels of sex and drug use at a young age. On top of that, the public school system seems to be at the front line of pushing new cultural norms. Not only do they encourage the normalization of LGBT issues, especially transgenderism recently, but they almost seem to encourage children to consider themselves as such.

When you have a captive audience of confused kids in the midst of puberty, telling them over and over that it is a normal thing to consider themselves transgender, some be can easily “incepted” to start thinking of themselves in different ways. Never mind that they don’t actually know what it feels like to be of the opposite gender (none of us do). The constant input of feedback telling them that what they are feeling is probably transgenderism can create a Stockholm syndrome-like feeling in an already confused mind.

A good interrogator can confuse an innocent person into picturing themselves committing a murder and confessing to doing so, even though they didn’t. Robert Cialdini outlines this particular example very well in “Pre-Suasion.” How much more can a hormone-confused preteen be influenced?

Some argue that having their children in public school allows them to be a beacon to their peers. In a dramatic illustration that really captures how I feel about my own days in public school, Dreher notes that “leaving kids in public school to be “salt and light” to the other kids is like tossing your child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child.”

Notably, private Christian schools are rarely any better. They may enroll a marginally greater number of committed Christians, but rampant materialism and status seeking is a much bigger problem in many of these schools. Additionally, a private Christian education can be a “vaccination against taking the faith seriously rather than an incentive for it.”

So what to do? First, Dreher says, teach children Scripture and make it a part of their daily routine to study it. Get the Christian teaching “in their bones.” Also, immerse them (and yourself) in the history of western civilization. As he says, without historical memory we progress away from barbarism, not toward it.

As far as schooling goes, find or start a classical Christian academy that cultivates both wisdom and virtue along with the traditional Christian worldview along with encouraging and helping to form a personal devotion to Christ in the hearts of the students. Use a Great Books curriculum to help form creative thinkers who have knowledge of the history of the West and vision of the church of the future.

The best alternative if a classical Christian school is not an option? Dreher suggests homeschooling.

Much of the criticism that I have seen of The Benedict Option is that it is not easily applicable for low income families, and this is why. Enrollment in a private school of any sort is not cheap, and homeschooling requires the ability to live off of a single income in most cases. One of the ways that Dreher suggests to help fund these academies and make them more affordable for all is to redirect funds from political contributions to classical Christian academies. I am not sure of the scale of the difference this would make, but I see this redirection as money better spent.

At the university level, Dreher suggests finding schools that offer strong Christian campus ministries that build community and develop disciples of Christ. Recently, groups on some campuses have developed communal living situations such as dorms or private intentional living houses to foster that strong level of community. Groups such as FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and Intervarsity are helping to form students in their faith much more effectively than anything we have seen before.

As someone who works at a Catholic campus ministry at a state university, I can verify that this section is dead on. I have come to believe that when we look at the Catholic Church in America in particular twenty years from now, most or all of the vibrancy in the church will have ties to FOCUS or a small handful of other organizations. While the Church is diminishing for the most part on a national level, the 120+ campuses with a FOCUS team are exploding in Mass attendance, Bible studies, and students in dedicated formation as disciples of Christ.

Our school has also had intentional living houses for both Catholic men and Catholic women form and succeed in recent years, and the level of comradery among the students living in these houses is strong.

The situation for Christian faculty is bleaker. Academia is clearly being taken over by left-wing idealization. The Catholic faculty that I speak with regularly, at a school with a fairly conservative student body (at least relative to most) are generally very nervous to be seen as practicing Catholics or heard speaking about their faith in any way for fear of their careers. This is at a science and engineering school where matters of faith and philosophy rarely come up in the classroom. In humanities and liberal arts fields the pressure to abandon any connection to Christianity seems even greater.

A Christian academic subculture is needed, for, as Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, “A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing goes against it.”

The next chapter will look at what we can do when our faith causes us to lose our careers in certain fields.