Last week, on Facebook, I promised an extended review of Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, based on a much shorter version that appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Christian Chronicle. But before we get to that, it may help to understand how Dreher worked his way there, and for that we have to start with his first book, Crunchy Cons. For more on The BenOp and what it means to be the church, check out our thread on The Body of Christ.
As a Christian, I’ve never really felt at home politically. Sure, I’ve had my periods of partisanship, but in many ways I have just as many differences with conservatives as I have with their liberal counterparts. So I had to chuckle when I was walking through an airport one day and saw the hardback edition of Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher (2006). On the cover (above left) there was this rusty VW minibus with a GOP pachyderm painted on the front and a kayak strapped to the top, driven by a suited man flashing a peace sign. And check out that subtitle! But I gave it a pass. I’m not even sure I opened it. Now, it makes it into my top 5.
Thankfully, something about the book popped back into my mind while I was looking for some light reading in the summer of 2012. I wanted something thoughtful, generally conservative, but also more than just politics as usual. So I downloaded a sample of the extended paperback edition (2010) in iBooks, which also carried a new subtitle: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots. The sample was short, but effective—I was hooked. For example, in the new Preface I came across the following:
Though unabashedly rooted in the rich and fertile conservative tradition, Crunchy Cons seeks to go beyond the shopworn ideological categories of left and right. … It’s time we stopped asking what’s conservative and what’s liberal. Maybe instead we should create a new politics by asking: What’s good? What’s true? What’s beautiful? What’s authentically human?”
Having already read a bit of Aristotle, John Adams, and Russell Kirk, I could already see I was in for a treat. But the real selling point came next, in what Dreher called “A Crunchy-Con Manifesto.” See for yourself:
Culture. Character. Wisdom. That’s where a Crunchy Con finds her WHY. But it’s not that Dreher says anything new. Instead, his genius lies primarily in the narrative approach he takes to his work, describing the HOW of a countercultural conservatism. Dreher simply tells the stories of people “putting truth and beauty first in their lives,” trying to “cobble together a practical, commonsense, and fruitful way to live amid the empty consumerist prosperity of what Henry Miller called ‘the air-conditioned nightmare’” (ch. 1). A good yarn reflects this beauty better than a good argument.
Dreher and I already shared certain loves: good books, Craftsman bungalows, Distributism, and classic Christianity. But in other ways, I hadn’t realized how deeply I too had been shaped by my consumerism. So I’m still working on these: putting down roots, caring for creation, and avoiding “refined flour, white sugar … processed foods … and … vegetable oil” (Crunchy Cons, ch. 3).
But what does all that have to do with politics? Well, quite a bit, actually. At its heart, politics isn’t about things; it’s about people, the polis (city): your family, friends, and neighbors. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t have any views on issues of public or national concern. It simply means that your expectations for political involvement have changed; you’re playing by a different set of rules. So in his final chapter, Dreher tells us WHAT a “crunchy-con political agenda might look like”:
Reading that list is probably as shocking to you as it was to me five years ago. But the longer I’ve looked at it, picked it apart, studied it, and put it back together again, I’d probably only change a word or two. Where has this depth of conservatism gone? And how could we get it back again? For me, Dreher painted a picture of this politics more clear, succinct, and humorous than I had ever seen—before or since.
By putting it all on paper, Dreher had hoped to inform conservative politics for the 2008 election. He sought to tell a different story than the dominant narrative provided by either party, or in the media. As he said in his opening chapter, “the conservative folks you’ll meet in the pages ahead will open your eyes, and in them you’ll see a sensibility marked by what G. K. Chesterton praised as ‘sanity, humor and charity,’ but also a recognition that American life is in crisis.” But the crisis only deepened. 2008 was a game changer for everyone, with a new recession and a new president, and by 2010 a new political subculture had emerged in response, the Tea Party.
That year Dreher wrote a new afterword for the paperback edition, reflecting on what had been achieved in the four years since Crunchy Cons had been published. But he was also more certain than ever that partisan politics was no longer the solution; something much deeper and more radical would be required:
The original subtitle of this book … promised ideas that might save the Republican Party. But now I doubt it’s worth saving in its present form. … This suggests that the crunchy cons should embrace the practice of what Vaclav Havel called “anti-political politics”—choosing to combat the cynicism and emptiness of formal politics by living virtuously and generously in one’s own community.
Politics simply wasn’t going to cut it. Crunchy Cons needed to forge another way of “living into the truth” (to borrow again from Havel), an alternative way of living out our “sanity, humor and charity.” And for that, Dreher looked to Benedict.