Junior Ganymede
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The Benedict Option: are We Losing Even Outwardly Committed Youth?

July 08th, 2015 by The Junior Ganymede

(Guest post from a correspondent, based on an email exchange that began before the Benedict Option post)

Has there been a discussion of how Mormons might meet the Benedict option? Is it possible to be Benedictines and missionaries? It’s a discussion the Mormons on the internet should be having if they have not yet.

This interview conducted by Rod Dreher with an anonymous law professor is a good place to start. It takes things out of the realm of abstraction into the world of practical measure. Here are a few selections I found particularly apt:

“The professor brought up the book The Nurture Assumption, a book that explains how culture is transmitted to kids.

“Basically, it says that culture comes through your peer group,” he said. “The most important thing is to make sure your kids are part of a peer group where their peers believe the same things. Forming a peer group is hard when it’s difficult to network and find other parents who believe what you do.” While each family must be a “little church” — some Catholics call it a “domestic monastery,” which fits well with the idea of the Benedict Option — Kingsfield says the importance of community in forming moral consciences should lead Christians to think of their parishes and congregations as the basic unit of Christian life.

Hearing Kingsfield say this, I thought about how there is a de facto schism within churches now. It will no longer be sufficient to be part of a congregation where people are at odds on fundamental Christian beliefs, especially when there is so much pressure from the outside world. I thought of Neuhaus’s Law: where orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed. It is vital to find a strong church where people know what they believe and why, and are willing to help others in the church teach those truths and live them out joyfully.

This is a time, said Kingsfield, for Christians to read about church history, including the lives of saints, and to acquaint themselves with the fact that the Christian church has actual roots, and teachings. It is not about what you “feel” is Christian. That’s the way of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is the death of Christianity….

Some people taking the Benedict Option will head for the hills, Kingsfield said, but that will be a trivial number, and that won’t be an answer for most of us.

“We need to study more the experience of Orthodox Jews and Amish,” he said. “None of us are going to be living within an eruv or practicing shunning. What we should focus on is endogamy.”

Endogamy means marriage only within a certain clan or in-group.

“Intermarriage is death,” Kingsfield said. “Not something like Catholic-Orthodox, but Christian-Jew, or high church-low church. I just don’t think Christians are focused on that, but the

Orthodox Jews get it. They know how much this matters in creating a culture in which transmitting the faith happens. For us Christians, this is going to mean matchmaking and youth camps and other things like that. It probably means embracing a higher fertility rate, and celebrating bigger families.”

The professor said we also have to band together behind religious liberty legal organizations like The Becket Fund and the Alliance Defending Freedom. And we have to make connections not only across denominational lines, but religious ones too — that is, with Jews, Muslims, and Mormons.

“It can’t be said loudly enough that yes, we have big theological disagreements, but the more we can stand together, the more likely we are to succeed,” he said. “The more our struggle is framed as a specifically Christian thing, the more likely we are to lose in the courts.”

…More broadly, he said all Christians must take a lesson from many Evangelicals and raise their children to know from the beginning that we are different from everybody else in this culture. We now live in a clearly post-Christian society, and Christian conservatives had better get that straight.

“There are a lot of conservatives who are very chest-thumping pro-America, but there’s an argument that the seeds of this are built into American individualism,” Kingsfield said. “We Christians have to understand where our allegiances really must to lie. The public schools were meant to make good citizens of us and now are being used to make good Moralistic Therapeutic Deists of us.”

Christians should put their families on a “media fast,” he says. “Throw out the TV. Limit Netflix. You cannot let in contemporary stuff. It’s garbage. It’s a sewage pipe into your home. So many parents think they’re holding the line, but they let their kids have unfettered access to TV, the Internet, and smartphones. You can’t do that.

“And if you can’t trust that the families of the kids that your kids play with are on the same team with all this, then find another peer group among families that are,” he said. “It really is that important.”

The interview also has a fairly in-depth discussion on legal and political maneuvers needed to keep Christian institutions viable. Readers here may find them of interest. Of greater concern to me, however, is what Kingsfield describes as”creating a culture in which transmitting the faith happens.” Political and legal battles mean nothing next to this. The truly high stakes game is whether or not we can create a culture that will keep our children and our converts pointed towards Zion. Whether or not Mormons lose jobs, are fined or taxed, are shunted out of the public sphere or spit upon whenever we enter it simply doesn’t matter if we cannot ensure that our children–and our children’s children–live their lives on a foundation of goodness and truth.

I say this because I have been surprised with how many fellow saints that I personally know have rainbowed their Facebook profile. I recently left a church college, and it is clear to me that a sizeable minority of the student body is 100% in support of same sex marriage.

Now same-sex marriage is just one issue, and the fact that so many supporters attend a BYU at all means the official stance on the issue hasn’t caused us to hemorrhage a massive number of young members. But the implications are not good at all. SWJ culture has seeped into how many millennial Mormons think. So have a many other lackluster ideals of our age, like the broader ‘best-friend/soul-mate’ model of marriage that the same-sex case for marriage is built around. This ideal of marriage has overtaken U.S. culture, and most of [American] millennial Mormondom has gone with it.

Prof. Kingsfeild suggests that the only way to keep the next generation committed to true ideals is to cut them off from media and provide them with a peer group that thinks just as they do. I am divided on this question. On the one hand, he’s right, peer groups make all the difference. I have a younger sister who went off the deep end, and it started with her as a young teenager spending all her time on Tumblr fandoms and hanging out with emo girls. Her path was set as soon as that become the peer group she identified with.

On the other hand, the thing I’ve always despised about Jello-belt culture is the common fear of others who don’t live up to the Orem ideal. Perhaps I was luckier than my sister, it is hard to say. But I spent most of my teen-age years far from Utah and at anyone time only half of my friends were Mormon. Many didn’t truck with Mormon, or even religious, beliefs at all. And here the effect was reversed: more than one took the lessons (though none has yet to be baptized) and almost all came away with a respect for Mormons and the LDS church. My family was a blessing in many of their lives they would not have had otherwise. A more benedictine lifestyle might have kept my sister in safer waters, but it certainly would have deprived those friends and comrades from the invitation to hear the glories of the gospel. Ours was truly a home where anyone from anywhere could come and find a seat at the table. Living in such a home was one of the greatest blessings of my life. Visiting it was a great blessing in the lives of many others.

And that is the rub here. We Mormons have done the extreme version of the Benedict option already, first when we moved to Zion and then even more so when we retreated to barren, sage brush deserts where no beautiful thing might grow in an effort to keep the world out. We have now been called to go out into the world. But how do you it? How do you keep the world from corrupting the next generation while keeping your door open for the lost souls of the world to walk into? Perhaps the answers are just the old Sunday school answers (its revealing how many of the prof’s recommendations are things Mormons are already doing), but perhaps times are changing, and those things will be much more difficult.

Professionally and legally there might be some pressure, even persecution. But these things pale when placed next to culture. And here we won’t receive any quarter. Common attitudes, every movie, book, TV show, and most websites made these days take as their starting point that religions like Mormonism

are foolish. They will soon be taking as their starting point that religions like Mormonism are evil. That will be the attitude of teachers in schools and of the kids who attend them. How do you raise kids in such a world–and be a missionary at the same time?

Update

I wrote the first section of the post shortly after Oberfell, before you wrote your excellent review of the various options before us. I have pondered on the matter a bit more since then, and would like to make an additional point: we must be very careful when using historical examples as our model.

1. Much of the Benedictine literature takes as its model the early Christian saints who survived persecution in the Roman Empire. From the LDS perspective this is a horrible idea. Why? Because we know that the early Christian saints failed–that church fell into apostasy. Orthodox and Catholic Christians will disagree with this, but we know that the Protestant critique of medieval Christianity was essentially correct. The Church that came out of late antiquity was in too many ways a betrayal of the Church Christ founded. The price of ascendance was comprise–both institutionally, transforming the church into a an auxiliary of imperial control, wed both to luxury and power, and culturally, adopting wholesale ideas and doctrines whose origins were found in Greek philosophy. It is this exact kind of corruption by worldly philosophies and values that we want to prevent. The Christians in Rome are in later times an example of what not to do.

2. So far in this discussion there has been little talk of the gift God has given us to weather the latter days–the Book of Mormon. We are looking for historical case studies of saints who have been able to keep to true doctrines and build Christ-centered communities in times when the surrounding culture was intensely hostile to anything Christian. What better example is there than the Christians of Helaman and 3rd Nephi? Over the last few days I have been reading the first few chapters of 3rd Nephi and have prayed for guidance as I have done so. (Though I expect we are rather closer to a Helaman than a 3rd Nephi society–look at the baptisms outside of the United States and the parallel is clear. One wonders if we will have a latter day Samuel the Lamanite.) I cannot say I have yet had anything conclusive revealed to or impressed upon me… but I have noticed that the Christians of that wicked age never shied from being missionaries. It isn’t a question of if we can continue being families driven by missionary purpose, but how we will continue to do so.

Comments (18)
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July 08th, 2015 07:14:35
18 comments

G.
July 8, 2015

That bit about BYU is pretty disturbing. But of course even when I attended there decades ago, a number of the professors felt like they owed it to their students to find some kind of accommodation with the ideologies of the world. The mindset was something like, ‘yes, there are a core of beliefs that we hold that can’t fit with That Hideous Strength, but why make trouble for ourselves by holding on to more despised beliefs and practices then we have to?’ As C.S. Lewis pointed out in his study in cowardice in The Screwtape Letters, this mindset easily and naturally slides into a determination not to have unpopular beliefs and practices at all. Especially not at the Schwerpunkt. The predicted psychological accommodation would be to completely concede on whatever points of Mormon Christianity society’s searchlight was currently pointed at, while reassuring yourself by holding on to something much more obscure.
****
“we know that the Protestant critique of medieval Christianity was essentially correct”
Don’t agree. The loss of priesthood authority happened well before Christianity accommodated itself to the Empire and mostly well before there was anything like organized persecution. I happen to agree that the time in the catacombs imposed stress on the young movement that distorted it, though it was the later success that was probably most damaging. Similarly, whatever happens to us, I don’t see how we could avoid being changed by the experience.

The Book of Mormon–excellent. However, recall that both of these efforts ultimately failed, the Helaman one very quickly, in fact. Permanent success is not to be hoped for, of course. But the success they achieved was due to massive miraculous intervention, without which it appears they would have been wiped out. Absent divine guidance to the contrary, Christ’s injunction to not tempt the Lord God would apply to any plan that assumed miraculous intervention.

I am not as optimistic as you are by third world baptisms. The retention rates are horrible and in my experience there is real ‘information loss’ in translating the institutional arrangements outside the U.S., especially if the U.S. were to cease to become the core. I don’t discount it entirely, though. In the Benedict Option post, one of the options was the willingness to move, even to third world countries, and I agree with that.

Agreed with you about missionary work.


Mark Brown
July 8, 2015

Agree that legal and political battles are ultimately sideshows and distractions.

I think we can learn more from your example than from your sister’s. The church’s own internal research, going back to the 80s at least, shows clearly that private religious practices in the home are, by far, the best indicators of whether a teenager will grow up to be a believing, temple-going Mormon. This holds true whether the young person lives in Provo or somewhere where he is the only LDS in his school. Peer groups and the presence or absence of large youth groups at church have almost no effect.


G.
July 8, 2015

Where parents have given in to the understandable temptation to make the home a refuge by a giving gospel instruction that avoids issues in the spotlight, the children will usually adopt the Great and Spacious Building’s view on those issues. The rainbow flag kids at BYU are the product of parents who just wished the unpleasantness would go away. Or, like the Godbeite Bloggernacle, they are actively on the other side.

It’s a nice question, though, because too much focus on issues at the expense of other gospel instruction has risks of its own.


Fraggle
July 8, 2015

“But the success they achieved was due to massive miraculous intervention, without which it appears they would have been wiped out. Absent divine guidance to the contrary, Christ’s injunction to not tempt the Lord God would apply to any plan that assumed miraculous intervention”

I think the key here is prophetic guidance. If it needs intervention, it needs intervention, and if we’re doing what the Lord asks of us then we’ll get it when we need it (even if that means the 2nd coming!). I find it interesting that other than the obvious letter, the response to the SSM ruling has been to focus on the Sabbath day. I find it doubly interesting that just a few days after that the UK press is now talking about possible government plans to extend Sunday trading.

I too have been dismayed at the level of support for SSM I’m seeing among seasoned members who should really know better. I’m not sure how long there is left before this is going to be the cause of a large-scale apostasy. We keep being told there will be a sifting, but I’ve not really seen it yet. When it does come, though, I’m convinced that whoever is left will witness the salvation of God like it’s never been seen before – and I’m not sure how I feel about that.


Vader
July 8, 2015

If they hear not Thomas S. Monson and the apostles, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.


Jason
July 8, 2015

I always find testimony from anonymous sources suspect. As a practical matter, there’s no difference between an anonymous Kingsfield and a non-existent Kingsfield.

What was it about Dreher’s use of “Kingsfield” as a rhetorical device that you found particularly persuading?


Andrew
July 8, 2015

BoM doesn’t have a most optimistic view on this-sort-of-thing. It’s almost of a process of continual falling away and renewal, where indeed even the mass or leaders may fall away… or whole nations unto destruction.


T. Greer
July 8, 2015

The loss of priesthood authority happened well before Christianity accommodated itself to the Empire and mostly well before there was anything like organized persecution

I don’t think G is wrong here, but I also don’t think this observation invalidates the point re: whether or not Roman Christianity is a suitable model. Somewhere between 2nd and 3rd centuries AD Christians in the Roman Empire met their cultural ostracism and political persecution with changes in doctrine and practice. These compromises led to very meaningful errors, most of which will be familiar to Mormons (e.g. the Nicene Creed), or to protestants more broadly (quasi deification of the emperors and other state authority). It doesn’t seem like a good pattern to follow.

Has anybody here read The Nurture Assumption? The Kingsfield guy likes it, and I have seen it cited in many, many discussions of a more secular nature. Its main theme is that there is zero evidence parenting changes behavior or attitudes among children–the children are who they because of genetics or because of their peer groups. It is hard to square that view with the “Peer groups and the presence or absence of large youth groups at church have almost no effect/The rainbow flag kids at BYU are the product of parents who just wished the unpleasantness would go away” way of looking at things. Anyone aware of open source studies that validate this second view?


G.
July 8, 2015

If I recall, T. Greer, the Nurture Assumption evidence focused on career outcomes and intelligence. I think even those authors conceded that religiosity might be more influenced by parents. But I’m not aware of any evidence definitely saying so. My gut instinct would be that the inclination towards religiosity is probably heritable but the content of the religiosity may not be, and that the peer environment is something parents should be concerned with. This is an extremely important question that I dont’ have a good answer to.

As for early Roman Christianity, a few points:
-Dreher is actually offering late antiquity monastics as a model, which I think is flawed for various reasons, but it should be noted that you are attacking a model he isn’t defending
-the specific malformations you are talking about, the Nicene creed and the incestuous relationship with empire, happened after a couple hundred years of survival and even growth under conditions of persecution and prejudice. Two hundred years is about the outer limit of how long the Book of Mormon examples you cite also took to flame out. So I don’t see the unhappy terminus in Constantinianism as sufficient grounds for blackballing that era of history as a source of ideas and inspiration.


Agellius
July 8, 2015

“Much of the Benedictine literature takes as its model the early Christian saints who survived persecution in the Roman Empire. From the LDS perspective this is a horrible idea. Why? Because we know that the early Christian saints failed–that church fell into apostasy.”

St. Benedict lived from the late 400s to the mid-500s, well after Constantine. The Benedict Option takes as its model Benedictine monasteries during the so-called Dark Ages, that is, from the 5th century on. This would be long after the Church purportedly fell into apostasy. The point is that Christianity was preserved at all, rather than succumbing to barbarism, which is the same danger the churches find themselves in today.


Agellius
July 8, 2015

By the way I’m curious: Are there Mormon schools that are analogous to Catholic ones? When I lived in Utah I recall that there were religion classes on or adjacent to public school campuses, but otherwise Mormon kids were educated publicly. I would think a properly Mormon primary and high school system would be a good idea nowadays. Or at least parent-run Mormon schools along the lines of http://napcis.org/


T. Greer
July 8, 2015

Dreher’s working model is the Benedictine monasteries. Many of the people whom discuss this look earlier for guidance–an idea that Dreher himself has written against, albeit in a much more ambivalent fashion than presented here.


T. Greer
July 8, 2015

“This is an extremely important question that I dont’ have a good answer to.”

It is an extremely important question–partially because if you look at how Mormons build communities, we are in many ways already living the Benedict option. Many of the things Dreher and those in this broader conversation discuss (youth camps, media restrictions, counter-culture as a goal, time set aside for teaching in the families, etc.) are things Mormons already do, and have done for years. The question is whether or not our model is strong enough to keep us focused on Zion in the near future. Personal observation suggest that parent faithfulness and FHE observance is not closely correlated with whether or not their children are waving rainbows today–or at least, this has not been true of my extended family or the friends in the church I grew up in. But this is anecdotal, not statistical evidence. I cannot say if my experience is representative.


Bruce Charlton
July 8, 2015

@T G – “Has anybody here read The Nurture Assumption? …Its main theme is that there is zero evidence parenting changes behavior or attitudes among children…

That isn’t quite right – the main thesis is of NA that Personality is not affected by parenting in modern cultures.

Personality is (in practice) derived mainly from self-ratings for traits such as Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness etc.

https://en.infogalactic.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits

Personality is not Behaviour. In a cognitive model of the mind, environment is the input, Personality describes the types of information-processing, and behaviour is an output.

So Personality is something like a description of the type of information processor included in a particular type of organism – it is the characteristic way a person’s mind is set-up – something like a pattern of wiring.

(By contrast, Intelligence describes how efficient and fast is the brain processing.)

The main point of the NA book is that parental influence on the child’s Personality comes mostly by genetics. This is almost certainly true – and makes biological sense. Genes are much the most reliable way of passing on important traits between generations.

But genes are only half the story – what about the other half?

Harris’s idea was that Personality is also shaped by peer group – this was the new hypothesis put forward by NA. It has a reasonable evolutionary rationale – in that we inherit our basic personality from parents – which adapts us to the past – and then being attuned to peers adapts us to the social world outside the family.

This is much less certain than genetic transmission of personality – but it is more likely to be true in modern societies than ancient ones; because in hunter gatherer societies – travelling in ‘bands of about 25 – there was typically no peer group, on a day to day basis – just a few children of various ages.

Modern society creates a peer group, due the the vast population, age-structured schools and work places, and this is psychologically amplified a thousandfold by the mass media.

For many modern kids the main ‘peer group’ is a virtual entity derived from engagement with the mass media. This certainly shapes behaviour – but not Personality.

But, I perceive that further elaboration exceeds the bounds of a comment!


G.
July 9, 2015

*Personal observation suggest that parent faithfulness and FHE observance is not closely correlated with whether or not their children are waving rainbows today*

My own personal observation is that youth religiosity almost exactly tracks parental religiosity–if the parents are faithful and observe FHE, so the kids, etc. Except that the youth are susceptible to waving the rainbow flag if the parents’ faithfulness wasn’t overtly countercultural. When youth deviate downwards, they deviate downwards significantly, because they’ve gone in in a big way into hedonism. And when they deviate upward, its been because they’ve fallen in with a group of active LDS kids as their main peer group. I am not more faithful then my parents on the whole, but my own home is much more observant about family scripture study and FHE then the home of my youth, and its mostly because of the extra fervor I acquired while at BYU. For Mormons who grow up outside the homeland, the experience of having a large set of LDS peers can be fairly transformative. But these are all personal observations. I’m not sure research could effectively answer some of the fine-grained questions we’re asking.

Anyhow, excellent comment. Quite right that much of the Benedict Option could really be called the Mormon Option, since we’re already doing it. The Pew study a few years back on youth attitudes towards sexual chastity and religious knowledge suggests that we are doing quite a bit right. But the rainbow flaw phenomena suggests that there is more to do.


G.
July 9, 2015

@Agellius,
not really. Back in the day, the Church operated its own independent school system in Utah, back when the territory was run by hostile gentiles, but now the public schools are Mormon-dominated and pretty friendly to the LDS. So Utah is surprisingly anti-school choice. That may need to change.

Outside greater Utah, there usually isn’t the critical mass for it. In areas with enough Mormon homeschoolers, you do get Mormon family schools sometimes.


Bookslinger
July 9, 2015

There were two or three exceptions. The church ran one or two K-12 schools somehwere in the Pacific; I forget which island(s) they were on. I don’t know their current status, but at least one of them was open well into the latter half of the 20th century. I’m sure you could find more details online.

The church also ran a school, either K-12 or some subset ending in 12th grade, in Mexico called the Benemerito, which was recently (2014 or 2015) closed in order to be converted by the church into an MTC, Missionary Training Center.

[…] Rod Dreher responds to the Benedict Option’s critics. Bruce Charlton has endorsed this post. More on the same blog. David Mills on crunchy Catholics. Gabriel Sanchez has some options. BO for […]

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