Benedict Shrugged

AbandonedCatholicChurch

“Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang…”—Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXIII. (Source).

For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
(Matt. 25: 14-30 KJV).

“There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged 1054).

In every age, the relationship of the Church and the world is a fraught issue. The particular vicissitudes of politics, society, and spirituality always bring up new challenges for the Body of Christ in hac lacrimarum valle. Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, recently released by Sentinel, is a contribution to the question as we must face it in our own time. Dreher says in the book that he hopes to “sound the alarm for conservative Christians in the West,” so that they can survive “the greatest danger” of our age, “the liberal secular order itself” (The Benedict Option 236). He envisions Christians forming counter-cultural communities to sustain the life of the Faith through “modern repaganization” (197).

Insofar as Dreher wanted to start a conversation, the book is a smashing success. It has been praised and pilloried in the Christian blogosphere and beyond. Over the course of the last three and a half years, Dreher has even inspired rival “options” such as Chad Pecknold’s Dominican Option, Michael Martin’s Sophia Option, John Mark Reynolds’s Constantine Project, Dr. Carrie Gress’s Marian Option, and more. I may get into some of those reactions over the course of this essay. What I will not do is make much reference to Dreher’s authorial meddling, including his obsessive and often highly vindictive reactions to reviews he dislikes. It is enough to acknowledge that Dreher is partaking of the conversation he wanted to start. Considered solely as a social phenomenon, the Benedict Option has succeeded at beginning those important conversations about the Church’s place in the (post)modern west.

But books cannot be reduced to the conversations they inspire. They are texts, and eventually we need to evaluate them as texts. Under that demand, the record is much murkier. There are many good things about The Benedict Option, but also many bad things. Throughout, the book’s noble aspirations are frustrated by poor style, errors of content, and a palpable, hand-wringing fear.

In the interest of charity, however, I’ll begin with a few of the positives.

Dreher is concerned with the right problems: individualism, hedonism, consumerism, liberalism, secularism, relativism, etc. In short, the toxic cocktail of capitalist modernity. Of course, Dreher hardly bothers to point out that these issues are intimately bound up with the economic system as such. But I digress.

Dreher follows upon greater scholars like, inter alia, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. There has been some controversy over Dreher’s reading of MacIntyre, but ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. Dreher was inspired by a line in After Virtue and came up with his own project (sorta…Gabriel Sanchez, among others, rightly points out that Dreher’s vision isn’t all that original anyway). So be it. The fact remains that, insofar as the book is a polemic, Dreher is aiming at the right kinds of cultural forces. It also helps that Dreher specifically limits his scope to the West. Any attempt to integrate the cultural experience of Christians in, say, Sub-Saharan Africa or the Far East would no doubt lead to an extremely different set of conclusions than those which Dreher has offered. His command of social science and ethnographic work (if not historiography) about our own situation is impressive.

Moreover, Dreher is right to mine the wisdom of the monastic tradition. Monasticism, where rightly practiced, stands as a sign of contradiction to the world’s banality, vices, and distractions. He attempts to draw something like a social doctrine out of the Rule of St. Benedict, a project I’ve long thought might be worthwhile if attempted with more systematic rigor. Dreher writes, “Because it dictates how Benedictine virtues are to be lived by monastic communities, the Rule is political” even while he recognizes that “The telos…of a monastic life is not the same as the telos of life in a secular state” (The Benedict Option 88). His Third Chapter, describing the life and spirituality of the Monks of Norcia, is a loving testament to this inspiring young order. Dreher also advocates for Christian families to turn their homes into “domestic monaster[ies]” and attempt a genuine ascetic life (124-26). In fact, his overriding goalto bring up the next generation as faithful Christians, and thereby preserve Christianity as suchis an indisputably admirable one.

I might add that some of his thoughts on education are sensible. While I’m more skeptical than Dreher is when it comes to Classical Education, and the canon of Great Books in particular, I think the model works best at the pre-collegiate levels he imagines. I also don’t think he’s right to totally write off secular academe, but I know from the experience of friends that the academy can be a sometimes unjustly punishing place for practicing Christians. My own view is that this places an even greater urgency on Christians to contribute to intellectual life in America inside the universities, wherever and whenever possible. Rowan Williams is right to point out that

The Benedict Option…confronts the prevailing consensus about how far the majority is willing to make room for principled dissent and public argument – yet at the same time shows a rather dispiriting lack of confidence in public argument.

I can understand why Dreher and his allies don’t have high hopes for America’s educational system, but I also think surrendering our place in the universities would be a disastrously bad idea. I’ll get into that in my follow-up to this review, when I hope to put forward some of my own suggestions.

Dreher also includes a really great, extended shout-out to the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville. Having spent the better part of my Sunday afternoons at “the Stud” for meetings of the G.K. Chesterton Society, I can vouch for its excellence. I have friends who have lived there, and it’s done wonders for their personal faith lives. In fact, I first saw Dreher speak at the Stud, when he visited in February (or was it January?) of 2016. He wasn’t half bad, either. The room was packed, and he gave a pretty good pitch for what he was, even then, calling “the Benedict Option.”

But I also remember a niggling doubt about the whole thing, which I couldn’t quite identify, much less express, at that early stage. Now, having read the book, I feel more confident in my objectionsbut once again, I digress. I wanted to start off with the praiseworthy parts of the book.

NorciaMonks

The Benedictine monks of Norcia, one of the greatest religious families in the Church today. I had occasion to hear their spiritual father and founder, Dom Cassian Folsom, say Mass at my fist parish, St. Brigid’s in Johns Creek, Georgia. I believe I was even blessed by him at Communion, since he came before I was received. A genuine saint. (Source).

Dreher’s “anti-politics” are timely and wise. He makes good use of the examples left to us by Czech dissidents during the Communist years. While I have a few qualms about some of his proposalssuch as his insistence that Christians focus all of their energy on Religious Liberty activism and legislation—I share his disillusionment with the organized forces of both right and left.

I also commend him on his total disdain for Donald Trump. Dreher writes,

IdolatrousTrump

Trumpolatry. Unless you read it, as I do, as Jesus telling Trump to resign. (Source).

Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it. (The Benedict Option 79).

Amen. As someone who did not vote for Donald Trump and hopes never to do so, I acclaim Dreher for putting those words in print. Too many Conservatives who once thought much more clearly about the morals of their leaders have since bowed and done homage to the Golden-Coiffed Calf.

There were other positive moments. The whole idea of reinforcing Christian community in the face of cultural and political opposition is a worthy goaland a surprisingly risky one at that. Any communitarian project is necessarily fraught with certain dangers, particularly in a world already defined by stark social divisions across race, class, and other categories. As I read, I was repeatedly and pleasantly surprised by objections Dreher headed off at the proverbial pass. He hopes that Benedict Option communities can come together across ethnic and racial divides, and he recognizes the dangerous tendencies of tight-knit communities to become closed, coercive, and cultish (81, 138-143). He also gives a few really great examples from the Mormon experience (132, 34-35). While Dreher doesn’t provide any practical advice for, say, Benedict Option parents whose children come out to them as gay or lesbian, one gets the sense that he’s not in favor of shunning, shaming, and disinheritence. Which is sensible.

(And yes, I realize that as an Amish Catholic, I ought to be in favor of shunning generally. Like Whitman, “I contain multitudes”).

I think his chapter on sexual ethics is probably one of the more sensible passages of the book. The very day that I finished the chapter, I came across this article on the possibility of a new liturgy to mark gender transitions (possibly even rebaptism) in the C of E. When Dreher says that sexual teaching is a lot closer to the heart of the faith than liberals might claim, he’s not wrong.

Finally, I’ll say that he’s right to pin his hopes on beauty. Building on Joseph Ratzinger and Matthew Crawford, Dreher writes,

God'sNotDead

That’s enough, David A.R. White. (Source)

…the most effective way to evangelize is by helping people experience beauty and goodness. From that starting point, we help them to grasp the truth that all goodness and beauty emerge from the eternal God, who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. For Christians, this might mean witnessing to others through music, theater, or some other form of art [if only they could produce something that isn’t deeply, obnoxiously cringey, but that’s not a problem  worth getting into here]. Mostly, though, it will mean showing love to others through building and sustaining genuine friendships and through the example of service to the poor, the weak, and the hungry. (The Benedict Option 119).

YoungPopeChair

Christian art done well: The Young Pope. (Source).

There are hardly any words in the book which earn my stronger approbation. Dreher is simply correct when he argues that we should “[do] activities that are pleasurable, not merely dutiful” (142). Indeed.

Pether, Sebastian, 1790-1844; Moonlit Lake with a Ruined Gothic Church, a Church and Boatmen

“Moonlit Lake with a Ruined Gothic Church, a Church and a Boatmen.” Sebastian Pether. (Source).

In spite of all these positives, I remain a BenOp skeptic. The book is rather flimsy, riddled with numerous problems. Dreher’s style never manages to break free of the chatty and occasionally shrill blogger’s voice that marks his online fare. Yet it lacks much of the humor that characterizes so much of what he writes at The American Conservative. I could overlook that sin, however, if his content were not similarly flawed. Dreher is dangerously allergic to the one thing that can save his text from its inner contradictions: nuance.

That failure colors every chapter in the book to a greater or lesser degree.

Religion is a famously thorny and multilayered subject. A religious writer aiming at the popular market can be forgiven for simplifying complex ideas to reach a broad audience. But Dreher’s approach veers away from educational simplicity and into outright reductionism.

For the sake of brevity, however, I will only get into the three very specific problems that I found most troubling to Dreher’s project and the quality of his text.

Bad Historiography

First, a somewhat pedantic point.

Dreher’s lack of nuance is most egregious in his historical narrative, given fully in chapter two and sporadically throughout other parts of the book. He argues that the Middle Ages were a time of order and devotion, in which European Christians believed in objective truths under the happy aegis of Scholastic Realism. Everyone had their place, and everyone knew the essential truths of salvation under God’s cosmic rule. Into this pastoral capriccio storms the wicked Nominalists, led by William of Ockham (1285-1347). By suggesting that universals were not real, but merely notional, the Nominalists inadvertently led to the centuries-long collapse of the sacramental worldview and all of Christendom with it.

OckhamStainedGlassWindow

William of Ockham, the great bogeyman of Dreher’s historical narrative. (Source).

Then came the Reformation, which is bad because it “destroyed…unity and stripped those under its sway of many symbols, rituals, and concepts that had structured the inner lives of Christians” (32). Admittedly, Dreher never mentions anything about the deficient theologies of the Reformers, nor the historical fact that Christendom had been divided since 1054 and, even before that, the Council of Chalcedon—but more on that point later.

Dreher then leads us along a whirlwind tour of Western intellectual history, leaping from one period to another with unsupported assumptions of causality. He cursorily mentions political developments such as the Wars of Religion, the American and French Revolutions, and the World Wars. Interestingly enough, he never discusses Imperialism, Colonialism, Anglo-American efforts to end slavery, or the Holocaustyet surely all of these phenomena had a significant impact on the construction of Western religion and subjectivity.

Eventually, the reader lands in the desiccated and desecrated landscape of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity,” our own godless world, still reeling from the Sexual Revolution.

Put another way, it’s Richard Weaver warmed over, history stripped of everything but ideas and spilled blood. There are a few problems with this approach.

First, it totally fails to account for the complexity of actual history. Even an intellectual historian doesn’t just deal with ideas as such. Ideas don’t float in the ether; they don’t make their way from one thinker to another by force of osmosis. They are transmitted via books, and through those books, to different communities of readers. Intellectual history is ultimately incomplete without its companion sciences: reception history, textual history, history of the book, economic history, political history, art history, and a tremendous dollop of cultural history. Not all of these need to be present in a given textand certainly not in a book aimed at the popular market!

But we oughtn’t let Dreher off the hook so easily.

Dreher knows that “Ideas don’t occur in a vacuum,” but his slovenly method leads to dubious lineages of causality (28). Without providing a shred of evidence, Dreher boldly asserts that “Most leaders of the Scientific Revolution were professing Christians, but the revolution’s grounding lay undeniably in nominalism” (33). What were they reading? Was the consensus among scholastic metaphysicians noticeably more nominalist in the 17th century than in prior years? Does that consensus cover all of Europe, or just certain important cultural centers? And if so, why should we believe that said consensus applied to the work of natural philosophers?

Or take another example: “[The term ‘Renaissance’] contains within it the secular progressive belief that the religiously focused medieval period was a time of intellectual and artistic sterilitya ludicrous judgment but an influential one” (emphasis mine, 30). Dreher does nothing to justify this assertion. Almost none of what he has told us up to this point suggests that he’s right. We read nothing about Medieval art or literature. We’ve only learned about the disputes of the Scholastics on a very particular question (no pun intended) and heard how great most people’s worldview was at that time.

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_Project

Dreher doesn’t take account of the complexities of Medieval life. (Source).

And let’s take a look at that alleged worldview. In a paragraph which (correctly!) begins, “Medieval Europe was no Christian utopia,” Dreher then goes on to write that, “despite the radical brokenness of their world, medievals carried within their imagination a powerful vision of integration. In the medieval consensus, men construed reality in a way that empowered them to harmonize everything conceptually and find meaning amid the chaos” (25). Who exactly are these “medievals?” Just the scholars who sparred in Paris and Oxford, or the nobility, or the knights, or the bishops, or the monastics, or the vast and often perverse majority of illiterate peasants? And which culture? Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Angevins, Normans, Iberians, or the denizens of any of the myriad German or Italian or Celtic fiefdoms? How far West is he spreading his view? Do the Slavs count? And what centuries does he want us to look at? He’s working with an almost thousand year span from St. Benedict to the dastardly Nominalists. If, in fact, the worldview of that Christian civilization was immutable and homogeneous throughout such a wide variety of time and societies, then doesn’t that feed the very criticism that Dreher so stridently rejects, that the Middle Ages were a “time of intellectual and artistic sterility?” (30).

This point matters, insofar as Dreher elevates (read, “romanticizes”) the Medieval Era as his cultural ideal. The Benedict Option is nothing if not a way of thinking about community. So, which community? What are its limits?

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The enforcement of Christendom’s social boundaries; the burning of Jews. (Source).

Case in point: what about the Jews? Certainly, they were thought to interrupt that “powerful vision of integration,” which emphatically never included them. Dreher periodically returns to Modern Orthodox Jews as a great example of community-building in the face of modernity (and is right to do so). He goes so far as to call them “our…elder brothers in the faith” (124).

But his praise sits uneasily with his historiography. Only twice does he come close to acknowledging that their survivalindeed, the survival of Judaism as a wholehappened not because of, but in spite of, the Age of Faith. It is not sufficient to recognize that the Jews “have faced horrifying attempts over millennia to destroy their families and communities” (124). We must be clear that, at least in the Medieval era, the chief persecutor was precisely the Christian order that Dreher takes as his model. The one time Dreher does, in fact, mention that it’s Christian persecution, he only does so to discuss how the Jews were forced into the moneylending business. Here then is another historical difficulty that Dreher fails to adequately acknowledge or reconcile with his greater narrative.

Of course, Dreher doesn’t need to answer all of these questions, since he’s not writing an academic history of how modernityor more properly, modernitiesemerged. My point is precisely that, due to the constraints of his form and audience, his historical narrative is naturally going to paper over important, substantive nuances. And those nuances are where the truth is to be found. A project so heavily predicated on a particular way of understanding our historical moment at least ought to get its history right.

As a side-note, I’ll add that Dreher also stakes his claim pretty heavily on readers accepting his comparison of our own age to the advent of the Dark Ages (hence the whole St. Benedict thing). That’s a comparison I’m not willing to make. If anything, our times more closely resemble early modernitya point I hope to explain more fully in my follow-up to this article. Suffice to say, Sam Rocha is correct to point out that Dreher’s view of the Middle Ages is, at best, incoherent:

On the one hand, he sees the Middle Ages as the period that required a radical retreat in the face of the fall of Rome. On the other hand, he sees the Middle Ages as a period of enchantment and deep faith. These two stories are both vastly oversimplified, but they are quite off when they are both said to be true simultaneously. How can it be the case that when Rome fell the Benedictines endured the Middle Ages guided by their Rule and, also, that the fall of Christianity happened, like Rome, after the end of the Middle Ages? Anyone can see that this story makes no sense logically. Historically, it makes even less sense.

I’m not suggesting that Dreher is necessarily wrong in his various judgments. He may well be correct in accusing the nominalists of a kind of cultural deicide (although it overlooks the Christian nominalist tendency, closely tied to empiricism, that numbers Berkeley, Burke, Hamann, Newman, and Chesterton among its ranks). Greater thinkers than him have made a similar claim. But as written, I have no reason to believe Dreher’s  intellectual history. He has made a defensible claim, and subsequently decided not to defend it. He has not shown his readers the courtesy of providing evidence.

Dreher’s citations are woefully inadequate. He makes some use of MacIntyre and Taylor, who are smart, respectable philosophers. But they are not historians. To his credit, he does draw upon C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, David Bentley Hart (although it’s his religious philosophy and not his church historical work) and Brad Gregory, an honest-to-God historian working with an honest-to-God historical method. But he incorporates Gregory to make a point that’s barely substantive, that different ideas about Christianity led to different ways of living out Christianity. Did we really need the authority of an historian to make a point that is already so blindingly obvious? Moreover, all of these citations come in the first two parts of his history: the Middle Ages and the Renaissance/Reformation. But whither Eamon Duffy? Whither Richard Rex? Whither Alexandra Walsham?

If Dreher generally fetishizes the Middle Ages, he commits the opposite sin in his treatment of modernity. He sees only the negative. Dreher’s readers would be forgiven for forgetting that, in fact, the Church has endured and ameliorated the conditions of modern life for 500 years, and that it has given the world innumerable saints during that time. Leaving aside Church history, I’ve already mentioned that Dreher omits the various emancipatory struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Why? Perhaps because it troubles his claim that we have arrived at a uniquely bad moment for the Church, a time in which there is essentially nothing to be gained from the culture at large.

Here, too, he lacks nuance or evidence. See his description of Freud:

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, found his true genius not as a scientist but as a quasi-religious figure who discerned and proclaimed the Self as a deity to replace the Christian religion. (41).

This is a huge interpretive move that Dreher never justifies. At all. He just asserts it as if it’s fact, not a highly contextual evaluation of a complicated historical figure whose legacy has been very mixed. None of the two paragraphs that follow even mention any of Freud’s writings.

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Transhumanism gets no mention in The Benedict Option. (Source)

Dreher’s view of modern technology is equally dim. Here, the problem is not that he’s overly negative, but that he’s misplaced that negativity. The book closes with an oddly stunted chapter that launches an hysterical criticism of smartphones, social media, and the Internet as such without ever bothering to mention transhumanism, AI, automation, or any of the other very possible threats looming on the horizon. Nor does he devote any space to environmental concerns. Here, too, Dreher’s failure to provide proper nuance or evidence leads to sentences like this: “The seed that was planted in the fourteenth century with the triumph of nominalism reaches its full ripeness in Technological Man” (223). Or, later, “The most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology ever created is the Internet” (224). Besides providing zero historical evidence to support either of these statements, Dreher couples his paragraphs of hysteria with passages like this:

And guess what? It’s wonderful. It has made my life better in more ways than I can count, including making it possible for me to live where I want to live because I can work from home. The Internet has given me a great deal and does every day. (224).

The effect achieved is stylistic and tonal whiplash, not thoughtful nuance.

I mentioned earlier that this criticism is somewhat pedantic. I own that. But I do think it matters. Dreher stakes his project on an historical claim about our own times. He wants to persuade us of his project’s urgency by telling a story about Christianity in the West. Failing to provide much evidence and ignoring the essential complexity of nuances means that his narrative just doesn’t come off as all that convincing.

Bad Theology

Enough of the historical criticism. The book’s deeper problem lies in its spiritual and theological defects.

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The ruins of Whitby Abbey. (Source).

There are a few minor theological problems, such as his lamentable claim that the Rule of St. Benedict is “simply a training manual. Modern readers who turn to it looking for mystical teaching of fathomless spiritual depth will be disappointed” (15). While I would hate to presume, I think that statement would probably shock someone like Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, whose own commentaries on the Rule have brought out a rich mystical dimension in the text (see this example, in which he draws upon even more commentators who have done precisely what Dreher denies is possible for the “modern reader”). Ultimately, an error like this is forgivable. If it was the only one in the book, I’d be happy to overlook it.

Alas, there are more fatal problems.

Dreher takes a deeply ecumenical approach in The Benedict Option. By itself, this isn’t an issue. Insofar as his book can serve as an ethnography of American conservative Christianity, it’s probably a good idea. Practically, ecumenism can be helpful when it works towards the bridging of boundaries for strategic, intellectual, or conciliatory ends. Groups like my own aforementioned G.K. Chesterton Society or Dreher’s Eighth Day Books are doing small-scale, fellowship-based ecumenism well (136-37). Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus modeled political ecumenism in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, much to the ire of fundamentalists. Similarly, intellectual fora for cross-traditional encounter can be especially productive. Journals like First Things do an excellent job facilitating that kind of positive ecumenism.

But ecumenism that ignores critical, substantive, or normative differences can be dangerous. The churches are separate for important reasons, and the stories and arguments they use to justify those differences are not to be taken lightly. For Dreher’s ostensible project, these differences ought to be of paramount importance. One cannot cooperate with someone to preserve a shared value when laboring under a false unity. Moreover, each ecclesial community will, of necessity, have a different response to the conditions of (post)modernity. They will have to draw upon their own unique resources and traditions. Their strategies will vary based on what they understand the Church to be. We can all agree that the Churchunderstood correctlyhas its own paramount mission, the salvation and sanctification of souls. But our understandings of how the Church is meant to do that job could not be more different. Losing sight of the singularity and urgency of the Church’s salvific mission and character is the greatest danger of all ecumenical work.

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Icon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which commemorates the triumph of iconodulic Christianity over the heresy of iconoclasm (Source).

I had hoped to find an ecumenism of encounter in Dreher’s book. Sometimes, I did. When he’s at his journalistic and sociological best, he provides some great anecdotes and insights across all types of American conservative Christianity. Unfortunately, the text is also riddled with a false ecumenism.

Dreher is very fond of speaking of “small-o orthodox,” as if such a thing could ever be anything more than a notional, or, at best, a situational construct. Sam Rocha, once again, puts the point well:

A second confusion is Dreher’s abstraction of Christianity. The book uses Roman Catholic sources and characters, but also includes a smattering of Protestants and a few Orthodox. By the end of the book, Dreher begins to sound like he’s written a manifesto, calling his new order “Benedict Option Christians.” Earlier he calls these “Benedict Option Churches” and “Benedict Option believers.” Just what are these churches? And what are the tenets of this belief? The book itself, with no ecclesiastical authority whatsoever and no scholarly credibility to speak of? This is tremendously abstract because there is obviously a real Benedictine Order that follows the real Rule of St. Benedict, which includes a lay apostolate for people like Dreher.

Rocha doesn’t explore the issue in all of its implications, but he’s on the money.

Dreher signals early on that his ecclesiology is, frankly, heretical. Dreher hopes to speak for and to “faithful orthodox Christians—that is, theological conservatives within the three main branches of historic Christianity” (18, emphasis mine). What revealing diction. Dreher’s working model is essentially branch theory, the heretical idea that Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism are all equally valid expressions of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” founded by Christ. In fact, Dreher seems perfectly content to go beyond the Anglo-Catholics who were and are Branch Theory’s most staunch defenders. He is happy to lump in a much wider net of Protestants, including figures like, inter alia, the pastor of “a small fundamentalist church in Minnesota” (112). No Catholic can sign on to this ecclesiology.

If Dreher had merely intended to use the theory as a shorthand for “Christians who are doctrinally and culturally conservative,” then “Dissident Christians” is a much better moniker, one that Dreher should have used throughout the book. It’s brief, it’s political, and it captures the posture towards contemporary culture that animates his entire project. It’s also ecumenical in the right waysomething like the “Ecumenism of Blood” described by Pope Francis—and doesn’t lead to the confusion of important theological and ecclesiological distinctions. 

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John Henry Newman; Ex-Branch Theorist. (Source).

True, Dreher says “Christianity,” not “Church,” but there’s other evidence of his branch theorizing throughout the book. He includes a quote by Leah Libresco Sargeant that sums up the Benedict Option as “just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” (142). What is this small-c church? What is it “supposed to be?” In the context of Dreher’s ecumenical approach, we cannot say with any degree of certainty. Or consider Dreher’s defense of Evangelicals adopting “traditional liturgies” (what could that possibly mean in such a context?) on pages 112-13, where he seems to suggest that Protestants can have “communion with the Lord in Word and Sacrament” while remaining Protestant (I leave aside the question of the “Dutch Touch,” which is its own kettle of fish) (112-13).

Now we are confronted with a much deeper problem. Ecclesiology is always inseparable from sacramentology.

The Benedict Option is insufficiently sacramental. The trouble begins early on. Take this line from chapter one:

[Moralistic Therapeutic Deism] has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends sufferingthe Way of the Crossas the pathway to God. (10-11).

What’s absent from this list? The sacraments, and above all, the Eucharist. Indeed, the Blessed Sacrament does not enter the text until page 24, in the second chapter, when Dreher describes the worldview of the Middle Ages; Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, however, goes unmentioned (24). Nor does the Mass appear in Dreher’s chapter-long profile of the Monks of Norcia. These monks gained fame in the Catholic world first and foremost by their loving devotion to the solemn celebration of the traditional Mass. Why would Dreher omit the most important feature of their common life?

The Eucharist hardly plays any role in the entire book except for an extended section in chapter five, where Dreher argues that “contemporary Christians” should “Recover Liturgy” (105). No argument from me there. Insofar as Dreher is working against the “strange fire” of light shows, projection screens, and a whole range of modern instruments from guitars to tambourines, he has my undivided sympathy. He also makes a good point about the need for reverence at the liturgy, even going so far as to state that

Jesus is just as present in the Eucharist at Our Lady of Pizza Hut as at St. Patrick’s. Chances are, though, that you had to work harder to conjure a sense of the true holiness of the mass in the suburban church than in the cathedral. (106).

What a refreshing dose of sacramental realism! Finally, on page 106, we hear the sweet truth that Christ is really present among us in the Sacrament of the Altar. A few pages later, he adds this exquisite paragraph:

The contemporary Reformed theologian Hans Boersma identifies the loss of sacramentality as the key reason why the modern church is falling apart. If there is no real participation in the eternalthat is, if we do not regard matter, and even time itself, as rooted firmly in God’s beingthen the life of the church can scarcely withstand the torrents of liquid modernity. (108).

That passage contains the germ of what should have been the book’s central thesis, that a return to reverent sacramentality, and to the Eucharistic Christ in particular, will be our salvation. Even from a (very well respected) Reformed theologian, this insight is nearer to the truth than a good quarter of the book.

Similarly, Dreher hits the right note when he says:

All worship is in some sense liturgical, but liturgies that are sacramental both reflect Christ’s presence in the divine order and embody it in a concrete form accessible to worshipers. (108).

Bravo! If he had kept on sounding this note through to the end of the chapter, I would have applauded the whole way. Instead, he continues:

Liturgy is not magic, of course, but if it is intended and received sacramentally, it awakens the sense that worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements. The liturgy feeds the sacramental imagination, reweaving the connection between body and spirit. (108).

The phrase “intended and received sacramentally” is a bit too vague for comfort. Who intends and receives the sacrament? By what authority do they intend and receive: the legitimate successors of the Apostles, or scripture alone? We see again the intimate connection between sacramentology and ecclesiology. Dreher’s words mean and imply very different things to Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant readers. His stylistic imprecision speaks to deeper theological vagaries.

What’s more, Dreher ought to know better. He has read Benedict XVI. He knows that “the Eucharist makes the Church.” One of the leading thinkers of his own communion, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, has built his entire career on the careful elucidation of a similarly Eucharistic ecclesiology. Theologians like the Armenian Orthodox Vigen Guroian and the Roman Catholic Bill Cavanaugh, though disagreeing in some important respects, nevertheless come together on this point. Their insights suggest that the very essence of the Church is bound up with the Eucharist. And if they are correct, it troubles Dreher’s entire approach to ecumenism and the liturgy.

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The Mass of St. Gregory. (Source).

Dreher includes unavoidably non-sacramental communities in his project in the name of ecumenism and (probably) book sales. After all, he goes so far as to state outright, “It is beyond the scope of this book to tell other Christians how they should celebrate their liturgies while still being faithful to their theological tradition,” even if that means omitting central dogmas of the Faith (112). So, what does Dreher do instead? He pivots to James K. A. Smith’s philosophy of “cultural liturgies,” an anthropologically useful concept. Dreher takes it up as his main way of selling liturgy to Evangelicals.

Unfortunately, in Dreher’s hands, the idea of “cultural liturgies” becomes a force for the very relativism he is attempting to combat (incidentally, Smith has since disavowed The Benedict Option). In Dreher’s telling, the liturgy is primarily a good thing because of what it does to us. While no serious Catholic or Orthodox theologian can deny that the liturgy is the preeminent means by which we are divinized, Dreher’s liturgical model is overly anthropocentric. It is—dare I say it?—strikingly emotivist and subjectivist. He places his emphasis on the way repetition and chanting and incense and community can orient our desires towards the life of transcendent order. Dreher instrumentalizes the Mass to an unhealthy degree. In a strikingly Maurassian note, he seems to think that “the form worship takes” matters primarily because it can “[build] a bulwark against” modernity (113). Once again, he writes that in a good liturgy, “worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements” (108).

The reduction of the liturgy to quasi-Confucian social theurgy is a scandal. Nowhere do we read that, even if none but the priest were there, the Mass would still be the holiest and most important ceremony on earth. Nowhere do we read of Christ’s holy sacrifice made present in the Mass, nor of the way the liturgy opens up the eschaton to mere mortal worshipers. Nowhere do we even find the words “Real Presence,” itself originally a Lutheran formulation that has since gained ground among Catholics and Orthodox. There is no need to get overly academic with any of this. Much of it already fits well with the social science he is trying to use. But in failing to rise above his own anthropological method, Dreher likewise fails to do justice to his subject.

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The Marburg Colloquy, where Luther and Zwingli argued about the Eucharist and failed to come up with a Protestant consensus on the sacraments. Dreher is an accidental Zwinglian. (Source).

The result? Dreher protestantizes the Mass. But not in the way that Luther or Cranmer or even Calvin might, those men who thought well and hard about God’s work in our worship. Dreher aims lower. He writes, “liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us” (108). To be precise, no, it is not. Liturgy is primarily about what God does to us through the Eucharist. We do not go to Mass just to learn, though that is one of its most important benefits. We go to Mass to offer the sacrifice of Christ and to receive God’s supernatural life in the Blessed Sacrament. Dreher’s pedagogical model is not wrong in itself, but without a robust sacramental realism, it devolves into Zwinglianism. Liturgy is a tool for preserving “cultural memory,” not a point of real contact with the Living and Ineffable God (109). Dreher writes, “Along with helping us remember Christ, liturgy also reminds us that Christianity isn’t just a philosophy but a way of life that demands everything” (109-10). Not wrong, just banal.

Dreher follows it up with, a few pages later, “We are supposed to feel that gathering in a church as a community to offer worship to our God is something set apart from ordinary life. This is what gives rich liturgies their power” (113). Did Dom Anthony Ruff ghost-write this passage? Christ the priest and victim is whator rather, whogives rich liturgies their power. The actions of the congregation are entirely secondary. That’s part of the reason that there are no rubrics for those hearing the Mass.

None of these problematic statements compare to a paragraph towards the end of his section on recovering liturgy:

Now, low-church Evangelicals are absolutely right to say that liturgy won’t save you. Only conversion of heart will. Liturgy is necessary for worship to do what it must do to fulfill its potential, but liturgy alone is not sufficient, for the same reason a Bach concerto performance means nothing to a deaf man. If a believer’s body is worshiping but his mind and body are elsewhere, what good does that do? The goal is to integrate all parts of the Christian person. It takes faith and reason to form and disciple a Christian. (113).

The first two sentences are perilously close to explicit heresy (specifically, Donatism). The Tradition of the undivided Church tells us that indeed we are saved by liturgy, because we are saved by the Eucharistic Christ’s cosmic and eternal liturgy. If Dreher meant that a mortal sinner cannot receive the sacrament without committing sacrilege, then he would be correct. But he doesn’t describe sin in the rest of the paragraph. He describes ordinary distractionvenially sinful at most. Dreher seems to suggest that our own disposition is more important than the objective work of the Trinity in the Sacrament. A great deal more precision would have been tremendously helpful.

I need not appeal to Catholic dogma to hold Dreher accountable for his shoddy sacramentology. Dreher, after all, is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. And by the standards of his own communion, Dreher’s book is very clearly heretical. It is impossible to imagine a serious Orthodox thinker endorsing any of the incoherent liturgical propositions that Dreher puts forward. We can also see the fissure between Dreher and his own tradition when it comes to his ecumenism.

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There is a 100% certainty that this guy would anathematize Rod Dreher. But also me, so go figure. (Source).

The Orthodox are far more jealous of doctrinal purity than us Catholics. They are even canonically forbidden from praying with heretics. That protective tendency is one of their more admirable traits, although it has exerted a heavy pricethe nearly 1000-year schism that has separated the Christian East and West. Consider the words of Mark of Ephesus, who scuppered a scheme of reunion at the Council of Florence (AD 1438-45) by his outspoken criticism. Here are just a few of his ecumenical gems:

“The Latins are not only schismatics but heretics…we did not separate from them for any other reason other than the fact that they are heretics. This is precisely why we must not unite with them unless they dismiss the addition from the Creed filioque and confess the Creed as we do.”

“It is impossible to recall peace without dissolving the cause of the schism—the primacy of the Pope exalting himself equal to God.”

“The Symbol of the Faith must be preserved inviolate, as at its origin. Since all the holy doctors of the Church, all the Councils and all the Scriptures put us on our guard against heterodoxy, how dare I, in spite of these authorities, follow those who urge us to unity in a deceitful semblance of union—those who have corrupted the holy and divine Symbol of Faith and brought in the Son as second cause of the Holy Spirit.”

A model of Dreher-style ecumenical engagement, he is not. Consider a more recent example, such as the widely revered monks of Mount Athos. The recently canonized Elder Paisios, one of the Holy Mountain’s more famous residents of the late twentieth century, once said,

There’s no need for us to tell Christians who aren’t Orthodox that they’re going to hell or that they’re antichrists; but we also mustn’t tell them that they’ll be saved, because that’s giving them false reassurances, and we’ll be judged for it. We have to give them a good kind of uneasiness – we have to tell them that they’re in error.

And, along with most of the other monks on Mount Athos, Elder Paisios stopped remembering the Patriarch at the Divine Liturgy due to the latter’s perceived “dangerous overtures” to Rome.

That’s not to say that I agree with Mark of Ephesus, Elder Paisios, or the Athonites. I think all of them are dead wrong. My point in bringing them up is merely to note that Dreher’s approach looks mighty strange through the lens of his own tradition. Perhaps that’s why there are so few references to Eastern Orthodoxy, both in the sub-chapter on the liturgy and in the text more widely.

SchemaMonks

Schemamonks. (Source).

Eastern Christian spirituality is full of riches. My own study of authors like Metropolitan John Zizioulas, Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, and Vladimir Lossky was a major turning point in my theological and spiritual journey. I date the start of my conversion to my first encounter with iconography at an Orthodox monastery deep in Transylvania. I have repeatedly found the simple wisdom of the startsy a useful corrective to my own selfishness and pride. And the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is a truly beautiful act of the Apostolic Church at prayer.

The thing is, I suspect that Dreher would probably say much the same, too. But he doesn’t. With the exception of one reference to Father Alexander Schmemann quite late in the book, Dreher mostly brings up Eastern Orthodoxy in anecdotes describing his own faith journey. I found the absence of Eastern Orthodoxy in the book more broadly to be a particular disappointment. If there are faith communities that have dealt with cultural hostility, surely they are the Eastern churches. Observe the Greeks and Armenians under Ottoman and Turkish rule, or the Russians suffering the yoke of Communism. Why doesn’t he mention these examples? They seem directly pertinent to his project.

Dreher also explicitly references another Orthodox figure, one who proves that, at the end of the day, his ecumenical vision is just as incoherent as his historical narrative and his liturgical theology. On page 136, in chapter six, we read the following passage:

Times have changed, and so have some of the issues conservative Evangelicals and Catholics face. But the need for an ecumenism of the trenches is stronger than ever…To be sure, the different churches should not compromise their distinct doctrines, but they should nevertheless seize every opportunity to form friendships and strategic alliances in defense of the faith and the faithful. (136).

So far, so good. Here, Dreher is at his ecumenical best. He recognizes the strategic nature of ecumenism, doesn’t try to confound sacramentally distinct boundaries, and orients the reader towards positive cooperation. What a welcome volte-face from chapter five.

The problem, however, lies in that ellipsis. Because in between these two passages, Dreher inserts a toxic little sentence:

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a senior bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, has on several occasions appealed to traditionalists in the West to form a “common front” against atheism and secularism. (136).

The sheer audacity.

With one sentence, Dreher undermines the actual goodwill that his muddled and misbegotten ecumenical effort might have borne out among informed Catholics. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev is one of the great persecutors of the Church today, a man who has repeatedly, mendaciously, and viciously attacked the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, even at the Vatican itself. His lies in the service of the Moscow Patriarchate’s power plays disqualify him as any kind of ecumenical model. Dreher knows this, has commented on it before, and yet still saw fit to include that sentence in the final draft of his book. I consider it the one truly unconscionable sentence in the entire text, and it makes all of his ecumenical platitudes ring hollow.

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Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, implacable and perennial foe of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. (Source).

The Benedict Option inadvertently manages to present us with a model of ecumenism that, on the one hand, would be anathematized by the Hyperdox, and on the other, cites one of the most rhetorically violent Orthodox partisans in the official dialogue today. The result is an unsatisfactory and unsacramental chimera, a quasi-church, not the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Body of Christ.

Bad Ethos

My final criticism of Dreher is, I hope, both less pedantic and less denominational than my previous two points. I recognize that the issues I have brought up may not seem so terrible to those who a) aren’t Catholic or Orthodox, or b) don’t particularly know or care all that much about intellectual and church history. These are very specific criticisms that, I acknowledge, may run the risk of asking too much of a book written for the popular press.

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The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. (Source).

But there is a third problem, and it lies with the book’s ethos.

Every volume of cultural criticism is, by its very nature, critical. It would be unreasonable to look at a book like The Benedict Option and expect to see all kittens and rosebuds, particularly in our polemical climate. But Christians who engage in cultural criticism bear special responsibilities. Particularly if they make it their business to preach and prophesy.

First and foremost, they must speak the truth. Leaving aside the nuance issues I’ve already identified, I think Dreher is pretty good about this. He constantly slips into the confessional mode, which insures the appearance of honesty. I don’t think anyone but the most suspicious reader could walk away from the book feeling hoodwinked. The Benedict Option is, if nothing else, a compendium of Rod Dreher’s honest assessments.

A Christian cultural critic, however, must also try his damnedest to persevere in charity. He fails, and fails scandalously, if he lapses into despair.

Now, there are two relevant kinds of despair. The first is a despair of one’s own cause, a kind of bleak, Spenglerian pessimism and bellyaching. Dreher has no problems with this attitude. At his most poetic moments, he is able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. His conclusion includes a few masterfully hopeful passages.

But then there’s a far more subtle and far more tempting despair, the despair over the salvation of one’s enemies. Our culture and our political system have gone mad on this kind of despair. It polarizes and dehumanizes. Why? Because ultimately, it is a despair of God’s mercy.

Dreher is guilty of precisely this kind of despair.

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“Christ’s Descent Into Hell,” Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1550. A painting that resembles Dreher’s view of the world, where a few fragile saints huddle against the overwhelming hellscape – and as in The Benedict Option, you can hardly see Christ at all. (Source).

He paints a neo-noir landscape in black and white. Unlike the world that you and I inhabit, it is merely the stage for a Manichaean spiritual and cultural drama. The villains of Dreher’s narrative are not individuals with souls in need of salvation, but dark and impersonal forces closing in on a haggard band of True Believers. The most important of these demonic forces is the LGBT movement. Dreher returns to it ad nauseum. No other threat to mankind, the West, or the Churchnot war, not Jihad, not environmental collapse, not racism, not economic downturn, not secularism as such, not consumerism, not Transhumanism, not euthanasia, not even abortionoccupies such a shadowy and potent throne in Dreher’s imagination. Everywhere looms the deadly threat of the Great Gay Menace.

Rowan Williams, among others, is right to call out the book’s single-minded obsession with this issue. Over at The New Statesmen, he writes,

Yet there are aspects of his rhetoric that leave a deep unease. “The LGBT agenda” is a phrase that appears on the third page of  the first chapter, and the prominence given to same-sex relations reinforces the common perception that the only ethical issues that interest traditional Christians are those involving sexual matters. In recent interviews, Dreher has been rather less vocally negative about same-sex relations in general than he seems to be in this book, but the phraseology (as in the derogatory use of “transgenderism”), here and elsewhere, sounds a note of angry anxiety and contempt typical of some voices prominent in conservative American religious circles, and somehow jarring with the commendation of Benedictine hospitality and equanimity.

Indeed, some of Dreher’s liberal interlocutors have written potent criticisms on just this point. Alan Levinovitz calls The Benedict Option, as well as Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, “spiritual pornography,” which he defines as literature that is

…designed to arouse climactic cries of Yes! Yes! in its readers, pleasing the soul’s darker parts by swapping a hollow fantasy of physical union for an equally hollow fantasy of moral warfare…a virtuous few battling mightily against everyone else…Calling spiritual pornography a fantasy helps to evoke its psychological appeal, but the world it conjures up is closer to that of the fairy tale. Both genres are built on two foundational features: dramatic arcs that proceed from Order to Disorder to Order, and clearly defined roles and rules that map neatly onto good and evil. It’s a world that trades humans for archetypes, nuance for simplicity, and the tangled skein of history for the orderly vectors of myth — but if you’re on the side of the angels, living in it feels really, really good.

I won’t go so far as Levinovitz, whose own polemical rhetoric has bordered on the illiberal in the past. What Levinovitz does capture, however, is Dreher’s sometimes hysterical distress over LGBT activism and liberal modernity generally. Levinovitz argues that “the soul of these books is not love of God; it is bitter loathing of those who do not share it.” He isn’t far off the mark.

But liberals who write off Dreher as nothing more than a cantankerous homophobe are doing him and the text a great injustice. To understand Dreher’s approach, we also need to look at one of his better moments. Late in the book, Dreher includes a profile of Spiritual Friendship, and specifically Ron Belgau. Some of what he writes about the experience of gay and lesbian Christians attempting to live a life of chastity is genuinely empathetic. Dreher wouldn’t have bothered to include their inspiring ascetic example if he had some lurking bigotry. Dreher isn’t a homophobe. By all accounts, he never advocates for any hatred or fear of individual LGBT people.

What he does fearor, more precisely, what the book fearsis all LGBT people and all liberals in the abstract. This fear entails a convenient rhetorical move. It lets Dreher confound and occlude the individual personhood of his ideological opponents in such a way that it is easier to consign them to the outer darkness en masse. For if they are not out there, then it will be us, the few, the faithful. Here we can see the ripple of dread that runs through the text.

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Hieromonk Seraphim Rose had a similarly dark view of modernity, but his ethos is more respectable. A homosexual who repented, converted, and entered a monastery, Rose is now widely revered by many Orthodox as a saint. (Source).

For instance, Dreher writes that “we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it” (17). At one point in the book, Dreher calls the LGBT movement “the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war” (alas, I could not find the page, so I offer you the quote via David Brooks’s review in the New York Times). Dreher suggests that

In the wake of Obergefell, Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be an abominable prejudiceand in a growing number of cases, punishable. The public square has been lost. (9).

He also writes,

…the day is coming when the kind of thing that happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith. (63).

Or this passage in his chapter on Christian labor:

We may not (yet) be at the point where Christians are forbidden to buy and sell in general without state approval [!!!], but we are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age. (179).

Followed up shortly by the statement that “the only thing standing between an employer or employee and a court action is the imagination of LGBT plaintiffs and their lawyers”(181).

The reader can make his or her own judgment about these words. For my own part, I consider Dreher’s contempt a profound, if understandable, failure of Christian charity. At Easter, his own Church sings, “Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection.” That spirit never enters into The Benedict Option in any sustained way. Others have discerned in it a lack of Benedictine hospitality. Levinovitz finds in it a certain resemblance to Jack Chick’s tracts. That’s probably unfair. Dreher’s contempt isn’t sectarian or vicious enough.

The book shares far more important affinities with Atlas Shrugged.

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Atlas Shrugged (Source).

In both, we read of a few stalwarts fending off the gathering darkness of cartoonish, straw-man villains. In both, we encounter a worldview that is increasingly binary, predicated not on the messiness of actual reality but on the black and white imperatives of abstraction. In both, the heroes must enter some kind of retreat (is there any literary analogy to your unfriendly local “Benedict Option community” so apropos as Galt’s Gulch?). In both, we get the sense that the author is entirely self-assured of their own rectitude. And in both, we find the same attitude of contempt for the world, an attitude that is, to borrow the words of Nostra aetate, “foreign to the mind of Christ.”

When Whittaker Chambers famously reviewed Atlas Shrugged for National Review, he wrote that,

Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber–go!”

He wasn’t wrong. John Galt declares,

All the men who have vanished, the men you hated, yet dreaded to lose, it is I who have taken them away from you. Do not attempt to find us. We do not choose to be found. Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider need a claim. Do not cry that you own us. You don’t. Do not beg us to return. We are on strike, we, the men of the mind. (For the New Intellectual 131).

At its worst, this is what the Benedict Option becomes. If there are communities that seek to build on Dreher’s more positive and productive suggestions, I wish them well. But I also pray that they leave aside his own venom. It is the final, toxic fruit of forgetting the Eucharistic love of Christ.

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With The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher confirms his place as the Ayn Rand of conservative Christianity. (Source).

Conclusion

I hope to explore my own propositions in my next post. The Church does furnish an excellent example of a saint who dealt with cultural conditions much like our own. I, too, have an “option” I’d like to offer for your consideration, one which is congruent with some parts of Dreher’s book. I’d also like to correct what I see as some of the problems of The Benedict Option.

But not without an important acknowledgement first.

In her review of The Benedict Option, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out the fundamental cultural flaw in Dreher’s project; we have been irrevocably formed by modernity. She observes,

There never will be another Medieval subject. All of us in the Anglophone world see with liberal eyes and hear with liberal ears, and to some degree think with liberal minds: Indeed, the lament that we’re no longer Medieval is a comically typical liberal refrain (think of the Romantics, with their Gothic revivalism, or the pre-Raphaelites, with their knights in shining armor). The will to be Medieval subjects again is the desire to return to an age of faith, but this is not an option.

I think it is perhaps this quality that, to paraphrase the remark of a friend, makes The Benedict Option such a great call to conversation and such a poor call to conversion. But it was also, for me, a serious cause for introspection.

And I have to thank Rod Dreher for that.

Reading and reflecting on The Benedict Option made me confront several of the pretensions that I have carried around for a very long time: my ostensible anti-modernism, my belief in the fundamental importance of community, my traditionalism. It didn’t cause me to abandon them all, per se, but to see their limits, refracted and magnified through Dreher’s problematic project.

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Glastonbury Abbey. (Source).

The Benedict Option helped me realize that I don’t really think the world was better before modernity. Every age has been full of tyrants and heretics, massacres and miracles, heroes and hysteria. No epoch is ever really better than any of the others, for what one may lose, another may gain in some unforeseen way. Human nature remains the same. Only the Incarnation of Christ marked a real departure, an intervention that radically transfigured the course of history.

But since then, God graciously allows us to live with our own cultural era’s particular troubles for reasons that remain cloaked in mystery. Perhaps we are meant to “Redeem the time.” The secret animating principle of history is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Let us trust in Providence. If we are given this moment, with all of its challenges, then let us praise God for that gift.

I am a creature of modernity. If you are reading this, so are you. That is an unavoidable fact. As T.S. Eliot writes of the Christian relationship with history,

It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
(“Little Gidding” III).

It is for these reasons that I cannot go where Dreher goes. I’ll admit, finding “The point of intersection of the timeless/With time” is always difficult. But let us never fear! “This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein” (Psalm 118: 24 DRA). With the Eucharist in our midst, we can and must live “for the life of the world” (John 6:52 DRA). Only by cleaving to the Eucharistic Christ can we fulfill our duty to be “the Word within/The world and for the world,” in the words of T.S. Eliot. Let us learn to love the worldtragic, sinful, broken though it may beat the foot of the Eucharistic God. We can never love it more than He does.

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The Traditional Mass is not Medieval, but Modern. Yet that does not stop it from also being timeless. (Source).

Elsewhere: More on Julien Green’s Life, Death, and Love of God

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St. Egid Church, Klagenfurt, Austria. (Source)

Pater Edmund Waldstein O.Cist. was kind enough to mention my recent post about Julien Green on his superlative blog, Sancrucensis. But what’s more, he built off of my essay in a really wonderful way. In his post, you can find more information on Green (particularly his later years, death, and entombment) as well as a wonderful homily he wrote incorporating elements of Green’s life and spirituality. I highly recommend a view.

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The tomb of Julian Green and his adopted son, Jean-Eric Green. (Source)

The only thing I’ll add is only tangentially related to Green. St. Egid Church, where Green is interred, is also host to one of the most remarkable chapels in existence. The Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs, a Catholic whose work draws upon the best of the Western visionary, symbolist, and esoteric tradition, was commissioned to create a chapel in the crypt. The result is…something. Although I’m a fan of Fuchs generally, I’m not convinced that his was the best approach to sacramental space. And…a clear altar?

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The Apocalypse Chapel, by Ernst Fuchs. St. Egid Church, Klagenfurt, Austria. (Source)

It’s a bit too psychedelic for a temple of God, I think. But hey, I’d rather attempt to worship in this overabundance of color and image than, say, a vaguely imposing and tomb-like structure that leaves its visitors depressed. I must emphasize that Fuchs’s art really can be mystical, even sophianic. Perhaps I’ll write a post on it some time soon.

 

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Those really are a rocket and the Statue of Liberty. Really. (Source).

And perhaps I’ll someday have the chance to visit St. Egid Church, make the pilgrimage to pray for Green at his tomb, and see the chapel myself.

The Fifteen Most Important Films I Have Watched at UVA

In my time at the University of Virginia, I’m grateful to have received an unofficial aesthetic education parallel to (and sometimes part of) what I was learning in class. As part of a series of somewhat nostalgic posts, I’d like to revisit some of these and perhaps leave you with a few recommendations.

Some of this will be review. A great deal will be personal narrative. “Important” here is not an absolute quality, but rather a relative one. These films have been the most important to me over my four years. Moreover, there will be occasional spoilersthough, as with No. 5 and No. 4 on my list, I don’t spoil very much.

Keeping those disclaimers in mind, let’s begin.

15. What We Do in the Shadows

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I watched this New Zealand horror comedy with a friend (whom I will call here and throughout by the name “Sherman Pine”). And I’m glad I did. What We Do in the Shadows is one of the best depictions of male friendship I have ever seen. Not only is the film by turns hilarious and macabre, it also manages to evoke the unique social pressures facing (post)modern man. It deals with issues of difference, acceptance, competition, and more.

And for anyone with a taste for blood – or at the very least, a good vampire story – the number of playfully subverted classic genre tropes in the film will certainly please.

WWDITS was also my introduction to Taika Waititi, whom some of you may recognize as the director of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.

14. Doctor Strange

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Before I came to UVA, I wasn’t a fan of the Marvel universe. While I wasn’t exactly a DC partisan, I never paid much attention to the Avengers. I disliked the only Iron Man movie I had seen, and I had never bothered to watch any of the Thor or Captain America films.

But then came Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War. Those three films and the conversations with friends that they engendered drastically changed my perspective on Marvel.

None of those, however, reached the artistic or philosophical heights of Doctor Strange. The beautifully kaleidoscopic special effects never drown out the excellent performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. And the plot contains a number of religious themes. It’s one of the few superhero movies I’ve seen that embraces a quasi-Christian worldview (the climax involves a kind of harrowing of hell).

In short, I guess I can now say that I’m a fan of the Marvel universe. Doctor Strange is just the best reason why.

13. Silence

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Wrenching, problematic, and beautiful, Silence is the only Martin Scorsese film on this list. I saw it with friends from one of my oratorical societies. We all went in with different perspectives, and came out with different reactions. Mostly, I just felt numb. I couldn’t find any words at all, but like Job, felt it necessary to “lay mine hand upon my mouth” in awe (Job 40:4 KJV).

I could probably write at length about the various theological issues, cultural questions, and cinematic gems that the film poses. I won’t. I’ll merely say that, while I found it emotionally crushing, I appreciate that art doesn’t abide by the rules we try to set it. Good Christian art – even Sophianic art – never loses sight of the essential brokenness of our fallen world. If anything, perhaps the great take-away from Silence is something like the advice I was once given by a very holy priest: “Never despair of the mercy of God.”

I’ll add briefly that, as someone who wants to focus on early modern Catholicism, I found the film a helpful occasion to raise awareness about the history of Christian persecution in Japan. The reconstructed world of 17th century Japan is sumptuously simple. Every aesthetic note is perfectly put. It will almost certainly be remembered as Scorsese’s masterpiece.

12. Mulholland Drive

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We move from Silence to “Silencio.”

Last Fall, I decided to watch Twin Peaks. That process entailed a general inquiry into the works of David Lynch, whom I had long admired. I told Sherman Pine, who shares my appreciation of Lynch, that I had yet to see the director’s famous neo-noir Mulholland Drive, and he was kind enough to watch it with me.

I still don’t understand this movie. I won’t pretend to. But boy, is it a ride.

I’ll add that Lynch really smartly contrasts different musical styles, which mirrors the doubling in the plot (but I won’t spoil those details). I know of no other director who is so committed to staged performance as a portrayal of themes. Particularly as they relate to the underlying tensions of sex and gender present in much of his work.

11. Days of Heaven

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My first Terrence Malick movie, but not the only one on this list. Watching Days of Heaven was like stepping into an Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth painting. Like a few other films – say, August: Osage County or NebraskaDays of Heaven stands as one of the quietly towering cinematic monuments of Midwestern life.

I also happened to watch the film with a friend (the aforementioned Sherman Pine) wile I was enrolled in an Anthropology class called “Language and Cinema,” which meant that I was particularly attuned to the way Malick crafts his story through sound. No other film that I know of uses such a wide range of realistic sounds so artfully. You can’t hear all the dialogue, and what you can hear, you can’t always understand. The voice-over narration is spoken by a child in the working-class accent of 1916 Chicago.

Of course, being a Malick film, the visuals are also gorgeous. A swarm of locusts is an inherently mythic phenomenon, but I think that only Malick could make them as beautiful as the sunlight they block and the fields they devour.

10. Do the Right Thing

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Because I was in that “Language and Cinema” class, I had the opportunity to watch several films I had never seen before. A few worth mentioning include Zoot Suit, the 1939 edition of Stagecoach, and Smoke Signals. Of all of the films we watched, one that really stood out to me as an exceptional piece of art was Spike Lee’s famous 1989 movie, Do the Right Thing.

The script offers a remarkable variety of linguistic turns that make it a rich field of social analysis. The film also impressed me as a bitingly relevant commentary on racism and policing. As someone with no prior awareness of the issues surrounding police brutality in 1980’s New York City, the movie made me want to learn more about a dark and overlooked chapter of our history. Given the recent spate of police brutality incidents over the last few years, it seems to me that more people should return to this film, a movie that carefully treads the line between the two social values on Radio Raheem’s fists: love and hate.

9. Becket

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Becket is not the greatest Catholic film ever made, but it comes close. Gorgeously fabricated costumes, historically-conscious sets, a richly Romanesque liturgical sensibility, copious use of Gregorian Chant, and an excommunication scene that thrills the cockles of every cold Traditionalist heartwhat’s there not to love?

Beyond these largely aesthetic factors, Becket has two unique strengths. First, the movie lacks any of the problematic theology or complicated nuances that has marked more artistically impressive Catholic films (such as Silence and Calvary). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with art engaging in these questions, but occasionally a more affirming film can be helpful. Becket, like A Man for All Seasons, manages to unite faithfulness to the Church’s teachings with genuine artistry. The titular bishop often defends “the Honor of God” against a rapacious monarch. And that brings us to the movie’s second great strength: its depiction of a friendship gone awry. This is a theme that isn’t treated as often as it should be in movies.

Of course, I may be mistaking my own reading of the film and its objective strengths. I first saw Becket when I was in a similar situation. A friend had quickly and completely become an enemy, and I could relate to St. Thomas’s exasperated struggle against a corrupt king.

And on top of that, it’s about St. Thomas Becket, who is one of the coolest British saints.

8. The Witch

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If you know me personally, you know that I adore The Witch (aka The VVitch). It may well be one of the finest horror movies ever made. It features all the tropes of early modern witch lore, a soundtrack that evokes the terrors of the Puritan frontier, and dialogue in 17th century dialect (my jam). Its understated visual style allows the actors’ performances to shine through. And the goat! The goat! Just look at it!

This film rekindled my interest in the tradition of horror in New England, which I’ve blogged about before in relation to Lovecraft. It was also the first horror movie I had ever seen in a cinema. The Witch also established A24 in my mind as one of the leaders of the new horror, a genre trend that I hope it continues with the upcoming It Comes at Night.

I consider The Witch to be the greatest Protestant film ever made. Yes, the Satanic Temple really liked it. Yes, A24 consciously hyped the film’s satanic themes as part of its publicity efforts. Fine. But the movie’s horror works by letting us into the world of Puritan New England, a world where the devil is real, witches kill babies, and the livestock aren’t always what they seem. And we are meant to sympathize with these people. They’re not the dupes of McCarthyesque hysteria. They’re the victims of supernatural evil.

I also read The Witch as a cinematic meditation on original sin in its Calvinist interpretation. Everything in the movie happens because of the father’s pride. He’s unwilling to repent and submit to the colonial community, and as a result, the whole family is expelled into the wilderness. The subsequent deterioration and damnation mirrors our own condition under Adam.

Also, if you like Goya’s Black Paintings, you’ll really like The Witch.

7. Herz aus Glas

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I saw Herz aus Glas (Heart of Glass) while on a Nietzsche kick in my second year. It messed with my head and made me want to read obscure Continental writers. I’ve always seen it as somehow quintessentially German. At the very least, Herz aus Glas introduced me to the remarkable oeuvre of Werner Herzog, who is my favorite European nihilist director. Not quite as grim as Béla Tarr, not quite as operatically depraved as Lars von Trier.

The film itself tells the story of a glass-producing village in Bavaria that descends into madness after the death of its chief glassblower. A highland prophet delivers cryptic messages throughout. The conclusion comes out of nowhere. At the end of the day, it’s probably a commentary on the German experience of capitalism and fascism, but who knows? Don’t question it.

6. Curse of the Golden Flower

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I first saw Curse of the Golden Flower with fourth-year friends when I was a lowly first-year. For me, it will always be a symbol of the similarly golden days between Spring finals and graduation.

The film struck me then as one of the most visually striking movies I had ever seen. The highly stylized recreation of Tang Dynasty China probably speaks to that part of me that also takes a guilty pleasure in the orientalist paintings of Gérôme and Delacroix. Each shot is saturated with a carefully chosen array of colors. The costumes and set design work together to fashion a stunning aesthetic experience. Think Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, but with more swords and cloth-of-gold.

Everyone to whom I have showed it since has agreed with my own assessment. The action thrills, and all the actors put in excellent performances. I’d also highly recommend Curse of the Golden Flower to fans of Game of Thrones. The palace intrigue that makes up the bulk of the plot resonates with much of what goes on in Westeros.

5. The Great Beauty

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When I started composing this list, The Great Beauty was down several places. But the longer I’ve thought about it, the higher I’ve ranked this film by Paolo Sorrentino. Readers of this blog will know that I kinda have a thing for his recent HBO limited series, The Young Pope. That show prompted me to look at Sorrentino’s cinematic work. The Great Beauty was the first of his movies that I watched. I’ve had the chance to watch it twice, and I may go back for round three in the next few weeks.

The film depicts the life of Jep Gambardella, a fictional Italian author who moves through the boozy and hedonistic world of the Roman intelligentsia. We see his interactions with other writers, strippers, a floundering performance artist, the wreck of the Costa Concordia, and more. He searches for the titular “grande bellezza,” only to find it after encountering love, suffering, and simplicity.

There isn’t much plot, but there is a whole lot of character development. Ensconced in a party lifestyle, Jep can’t produce any more books; he feels stuck. When he receives word that his first love has died, he goes through a period of intense introspection. As he looks back upon his life, he realizes that he’s lost any meaningful sense of joy. He’s caught in a malaise of memory. Only the wise words of a Mother Theresa-like nun whom everyone refers to as “the Saint” unlocks his situation.

She asks, “Do you know why I only eat roots?” Jep replies that he doesn’t know. She turns back, and without even a smile, says to him, “Because roots are important.” The terse, spiritual one-liners of The Great Beauty are typical Sorrentino fare. Similar lines appear throughout The Young Pope.

I first saw the film in February. I’ve been ruminating on it ever since. It has stayed with me and fermented in my soul like few other films. I can’t help but relate to the protagonistand not just because we share a similar sleep cycle. Jep Gambardella, played masterfully by Tony Servillo, strikes me as a character who could relate to the strange feelings of nostalgia and loss that I’ve had in the Spring of my fourth year. So much so, that along with the next two films, I consider it one of the triad of movies that has defined my final year at the University.

Also, the music in this film is totally gorgeous, and has given me a renewed appreciation of the Holy Minimalists. The soundtrack features both of the songs I described in a recent post on the Light of Tabor and Lent.

So go see it, because it really is too great a beauty to pass up.

4. The Mission

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Although I had heard of The Mission years ago, I only became really determined to watch it as the result of a class I took last fall, “Reformation Europe.” I’m glad I did. It also had a profound impact on me. I don’t think I know of a Catholic film that more perfectly depicts the difficult realities of balancing missionary work and the demands of Christian peace. The tension between the Jesuits played by Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons is only undone through the reconciliation implicit in the climactic scene. It is the Eucharist, and the Eucharist alone, which can effect true peace – especially in the face of martyrdom.

A few ancillary personal notes. First, as an aspiring early modernist, I found that the film disposed me to take a much deeper interest in colonial South America. It also made me take a much more serious look into Christian pacifism. The best art should do that. It captures the imagination and lead us on from the beautiful to the true or the good. Secondly, “Gabriel’s Oboe” is also, for my money, the most uplifting music from any of the films I have listed in this post. Finally, it confirmed Jeremy Irons in my mind as the Most Catholic Non-Catholic currently acting in Hollywood (see Brideshead Revisited, The Borgias).

3. The Tree of Life

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For years, friends told me that I had to watch The Tree of Life. That it was an incredible piece of art. That it could never be adequately described. That it might just induce a religious experience.

Having watched it recently, I concur. The film is too vast to try and capture in any depth here. I’ll simply say that it is the most sophianic piece of cinema I have ever seen, and that if I have any time in the future, I may try to analyze it from a sophiological perspective. But not without one more viewing.

2. Into Great Silence

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For a while, I made it a practice to watch Into Great Silence at least once per semester. I believe I first saw the film in the Fall of my First Year, and in that sense, it was my first real introduction to monastic spirituality. The simplicity and manifest holiness of the Carthusians in the movie captured my imagination. Their silence spoke to me.

Nothing happens. Insofar as there is a narrativeand I must emphasize, there really isn’t oneit’s the first year in the monastery of a newly-professed novice. But we don’t focus on him. Instead, we watch many of the monks as they go about life. We are brought into the rhythms of their own silence, the particular ways they fill it with prayer and work. When the monks do speak, they often drop deep little lines. The only interview in the documentary is conducted with an ancient, blind monk. At one point, he says,

The past, the present, these are human. In God there is no past. Solely the present prevails. And when God sees us, He always sees our entire life. And because He is an infinitely good being, He eternally seeks our well-being. Therefore there is no cause for worry in any of the things which happen to us.

These words are good theology, spoken by a saint, given for our practical sanctification. Or consider an even better, briefer quip spoken by a monk at recreation:

The symbols are not to be questionedwe are.

Words to live by.

If you are Catholic, the hauntingly beautiful scene that depicts the Carthusian night office will make you want to go to adoration at midnight. If you are not religious, the film will make you take the ascetic life more seriously. And if you are pondering the Catholic life, I can’t think of a better cinematic introduction to the Church’s spirituality.

Well, I suppose there’s Bishop Barron’s Catholicism series. But that’s a show, not a film.

  1. Baraka

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Without a doubt, this film has defined my time at UVA. I discovered Baraka by accident, and it stirred something in me that has never quite settled.

One part nature documentary, one part travelogue, one part blistering social criticism, Baraka can be summed up in one word: transcendent. Everything in the film points towards what is beyond it, towards what it dare not express in words. There is no dialogue. The central theme is that ritual and nature connect mankind with the mystery of his existence, and it proceeds to show how the way we break, deform, and reconstruct ritual in modernity has led to untold suffering. The film suggests that a return to the ancient wisdom of religion can restore the meaning we have lost in the 20th century.

Whether you buy into that traditionalist interpretationor its postmodernist, ecofeminist, anti-colonialist, or anti-capitalist variantsthe film will stun you. Director Ron Fricke cut his teeth as director of photography for Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and director of Chronos (1985), the film’s spiritual antecedents. He would later go on to direct a sequel to Baraka, another beautiful film called Samsara (the featured image at the top of this article is a still from that movie). While all are worth seeing, Baraka is the best of the lot. It has the most coherent spiritual vision, the best music, and the most striking visuals.

I encountered Baraka my third year, at a time in my life when I was under tremendous personal stress, as I alluded to in my discussion of Becket. Maybe that slight desperation opened me to a film of Baraka‘s sensibilities. I don’t know. But I don’t think I watched a film while at UVA that more profoundly shaped my worldview and aesthetic. I’d say that everyone who studies or practices religion should see it, but that would be a lie. Everyone should see itperiod.

Some Occasional Thoughts on the Holy Minimalists and the Light of Tabor

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Icon of the Transfiguration, by the hand of the great 15th century iconographer of Moscow, Theophanes the Greek.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them,”Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

These words from St. Matthew were the Gospel reading at Mass last night. Yesterday was the second weekend of Lent, and the Church directs our eyes, alongside those of the holy apostles, to the face of Our Lord in His Transfiguration. And in the Eastern Churches, today is St. Gregory Palamas Sunday. Palamas is most famous for his articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction as part of a broader polemic against the Byzantine Scholastic attacks on Hesychasm carried out by Barlaam of Seminara. One of Palamas’ key Scriptural examples of God’s energies is the “uncreated light” of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. St. Gregory is celebrated to this day by the Eastern Orthodox and by Eastern Catholics on their Lenten calendars; yet in the post-Scholastic West, he still holds no place on the calendar. I must wonder whether or not the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent were chosen at the revision of the Lectionary in part as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, though my knowledge of 20th century liturgical innovations is shallow at best. Regardless, those who, to adapt a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II, “breathe with both lungs” of the Church can recognize the Providential coincidence of these two celebrations.

The Light of Tabor is, in a Palamite reading, the eternal Glory of God made manifest in, with, and through Christ’s created humanity. The Transfiguration is therefore an archetypal moment for every mysticnot just the Hesychasts whom St. Gregory was defending. In view of all this, while I listened to the priest reading the Gospel this evening, a song came to mind: “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” by Arvo Pärt. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Robert Burns. Here’s the chorus:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

A few weeks ago, when I first listened to the song, it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for the contemplative life. Is not the contemplative’s heart set in the “high lands” of the spirit, like St. John of the Cross’s Mount Carmel? And has the Divine not been associated with wild deer throughout history, from the panting hart of Psalm 42 to the vision of St. Hubert to the White Stag of Narnia? The Apostles, like the mystics, like the chanting voice in Pärt’s song, are “led…up a high mountain by themselves.” There, they find Christ’s true glory, the energy of His divinity totally interpenetrating all they can perceive of him. The created rises into the divine, and the uncreated bends towards the creaturely; the two meet in the transfigured Christ. The dual presence of the heavenly Elijah and the Sheol-bound Moses demonstrates the moment of radiant communion between God and His creation, manifested perfectly in Christ, the Word made flesh.

Pärt’s song describes the experience of the mystic, not because Burns’ words actually refer to contemplation, but because of the way he takes up the verse and stretches it against an agonizingly poignant organ composition. He sets secular words to sacred music. Thus he accomplishes in miniature the assumption of the creaturely by the divine that comes before our vision in the Transfiguration. Art at its finest is called to participate in this lesser Transfiguration, and Pärt is a consummate master of what Tolkien might call “sub-creation.”

But Pärt is not alone in this; one of his colleagues, John Tavener, arguably a finer and more mystically-oriented composer, also transfigured profane writings into sacred pieces of music. I can think of no better example of this than his brief and delightful motet, “The Lamb.” Tavener took the lyrics from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In full, it reads:

Little lamb, who made thee
 Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
 Little lamb, who made thee?
 Dost thou know who made thee?

 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
 Little lamb, God bless thee!
 Little lamb, God bless thee!

Here too, we might glimpse the transfigured Lamb of God between the lines of Blake’s verse. The lamb’s “clothing of delight/Softest clothing, woolly, bright” seems to echo the robe rendered “white as light” on Mt. Tabor. Blake speaks of “the vales” when Scripture instead would bring us up to the peaks. And the question that ends the first verse is fundamentally the same as that which must have run through the minds of the bewildered apostles; who is this man? The answer, of course, comes from the voice in the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And Tavener’s eerily beautiful choral setting imbues the lyrics with a dimension hitherto unimagined. Many of his works remind one of candlelight on ritual gold, or the smell of incense flying forth with the rhythm of thurible bells, or the echo that thins out asymptotically under the glittering mosaic of a high dome. “The Lamb” is all of this, presented compactly. It stands as one of his finest works, and one of his most spiritually rich.

I recently wrote about the Holy Minimalists in a piece on the music of The Young Pope. They’ve been on my mind. But I didn’t connect their artistic project to the Transfiguration until tonight. We Christians are to become “little Christs,” imitating Jesus in all things by adoption and deification. Sometimes, that takes the form of contemplation. The apostles model that path for us in their behavior on Mt. Tabor. But at other times, and in other ways, we are called to live the life of Christ more directly. The Transfiguration provides a mystical glimpse of what happensand indeed, what will happenwhen the uncreated Light of God assumes, permeates, and glorifies the creation. Of course, the energies of God are not found in the artifices of men; but artists can practice their own, creaturely form of transfiguration. The pieces of music I have discussed are shot through with an awareness of the divine presence, and the words that began as profane poetry become something altogether different, something sacred, something nearly liturgical.

At the beginning of Lent, T.S. Eliot tells us to “Redeem/The time.” On this, the Second Sunday of the penitential season, Christ reveals in Himself how we might do soa transfiguration that Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have achieved, in some small way, through their own creative work.

 

A Theological Primer on Emblems

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“I Live,” from the Emblemata Sacra (1618)

Of all the myriad forms of visual theology that draw upon the Western traditions of art history, perhaps no medium is quite as neglected as the emblem. The books that contained these small, symbolically rich images constituted a prolific genre in the early modern period. They had a fairly standard format. Usually, the emblems sat alongside a few moral or sacred verses in Latin, Greek, or a European language. Daniel Cramer’s Emblemata Sacra (1618), from which the image above was taken, is a good example of this polyglot tendency. On the verso, one can find a quatrain in Latin, German, French, and Italian, always connecting the symbolism of the emblem with a French and Italian verse of the Scriptures. On the recto, the emblem sits under the same verse, this time in Latin and German. The page concludes with an epigrammatic prayer in Latin.

It seems that emblem books were popular in early modern Europe. Mara R. Wade of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign writes, “In the preface to his Companion to Emblem Studies (2006) Peter Daly estimates that ca. 6,500 emblem books were published during the Renaissance, with an individual volume containing anywhere from 15 to 1,500 emblems.” Wikipedia lists no fewer than 54 representative titles, though there were certainly many more produced between 1500 and 1800 (as any cursory review of UIUC’s  Emblematica Online or the French Emblems at Glasgow archives can show). The fact that these books were often printed with multiple languages of text side by side suggests that they were documents with cross-cultural appeal. They were meant to speak not only to the elites who knew Latin, but also to the literate bourgeoisie. All of that makes their emergence as a genre at a time of religious strife even more remarkable.

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“Le Monde est L’Image de Dieu,” one of the more explicit expressions of esoteric philosophy, in Boissard’s Emblemes latins […] avec l’interpretation Francoise (1588). It anticipates Boehme’s De Signatura Rerum by nearly 40 years.

Of course, not all emblem books were targeted for mass appeal. Occult works often made rich use of emblems. The chief virtue of the emblem is its capacity of succinct complexity. It can communicate a lot by saying very little. It obscures by revealing; it hides by manifestation. As one source puts it, “Emblems are concise yet potent combinations of texts and images that invite, and require, decoding.” This makes the emblem the perfect vehicle for the esoteric proliferation of ideas. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” says the Lord. If He had come in the age of Gutenberg, perhaps He would have delivered His parables in emblem books. Of course, to say so is to implicitly claim Christ as a Protestant. Catholics did produce emblem books; indeed, one of the latest examples I have found is the 1780 French reprint of Dom Bonifaz Gallner’s earlier Regula Emblematica Sancti Benedicti. However, it would seem that the majority of important emblem books flowed from Protestant presses.

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Emblem XXI from the alchemical text Atalanta Fugiens (1617), by the Lutheran Rosicrucian Michael Maier

There is a good historical and aesthetic reason for this. The emblem functions by setting up a symbol or a system of symbols independent of any text. While text was sometimes used to elucidate the meaning of those symbolic networks, it was always secondary to the image itself. The emblem book is one of the last gasps of the primacy of image over text in European thought. Along with the Wunderzeichenbuchen, the emblem book is one of the main genres mobilized by Continental Protestants to rediscover a non-iconographic (and, to their mind, a non-idolatrous) use of image in moral and spiritual development. Instead of an image asserting its “auratic” power to the exclusion of text, the emblem book suggests a way that text and image can mutually illuminate each other. As Mara Wade writes, the emblem books engendered “a process of reciprocal reading of texts and images, whereby the back and forth between the words and the pictures creates meaning. The picture presents the reader with a recognizable scene or symbolic collage, and the text then reorients the reader’s understanding of that scene to present a new and unexpected message.” In this sense, the emblem book clearly partakes of a distinctly Humanist and Protestant heritage. Note again that emblem books were very often the chosen medium for the quasi-scientific magical teachings of the Rosicrucians and alchemists. Those strange laborers were also, in their own quixotic way, seeking to reclaim something of the sacramental worldview thrown away by the iconoclastic Reformers (see Henry 2015).

The triumph of discursive reason over image in the Enlightenment led to the decline of the emblem book as a genre (there are surely other reasons tied to shifting book markets, but my capacities to do research into textual history are limited at this time). After that, the record has been rather sparse. Hamann occasionally used emblems in his philosophical works. More recent theologians have largely overlooked the emblem book as a theological genre. The single counterexample I can readily think of is Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot, which can only count as an emblem book when we ignore its departures from the traditional form. Yet the renewal of esoteric Catholicism by reliably orthodox publishing houses like Angelico Press suggests that the emblem book may have a place in the theology of the future.

Its revival seems particularly apropos in an age when memes have become topics of serious political discourse, when visual self-representation has been amplified through various social media, and when new norms of communication emphasize brevity over detail. An epoch is defined, in large part, by the relation of its people to their media. The development of the printing press launched early modernity by helping to bring about new conceptions of subjectivity, as well as new questions about the relationship of text and image. Consequently, the emblem book arose to grapple with some of those questions. The next great civilizational step in communication arrived with the internet, accompanying nascent postmodernity. Perhaps we shall see a revival of the emblem book for theologians to navigate this “brave new world.”

Elsewhere: Daniel Mitsui’s New Blog

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“Our Lady of Walsingham,” by Daniel Mitsui. Available at http://www.danielmitsui.com

Exciting news for anyone who follows the Catholic art world. Daniel Mitsui, the artist famous for his intricate, lively drawings of Christ and the Saints, has just announced that he has a new blog. The new site promises to be aesthetically and spiritually enriching. Check out his new, great project, the Summula Pictoria. I look forward to seeing what Mr. Mitsui will produce for us in the future.

And his new piece depicting St. Philip Neri is lovely, as always.

Notes on the Music of “The Young Pope”

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The Prime Minister of Greenland gives the Pope a record of Nada’s “Senza un Perche.” And then dances to it. Alone. While the credits role.

In a previous post, I discussed the visual aesthetic of Paolo Sorrentino’s new drama, The Young Pope. Today, I’d like to examine another facet of the show’s artistry: the soundtrack. The Young Pope‘s music has occasioned a few admiring or even acerbic comments, but little serious inquiry.

Although I am by no means an expert in musical theory, I know enough to realize that few shows have ever had quite the musical mix that The Young Pope has. And since I have a Spotify account, I have the luxury of perusing the entire official Young Pope playlist. A few types of music emerge. I would like to examine these in turn.

The Original Score

Is relatively unremarkable. Ramin Djawadi has given us better music in HBO’s other great recent dramas, Game of Thrones and Westworld. But Lele Marchitelli’s “Cardinals” has a delightful airiness, the sense of a certain holy whimsy about it. It’s happy music.

Techno

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“Levo,” by Recondite

The show is very European, and incorporates a great degree of the continent’s signal, stereotypical genre.

Michael Baumann over at The Ringer offers a great analysis of one of the songs, “Levo,” by Recondite, a techno artist from Germany. Baumann notes that Sorrentino “folds ‘Levo’ into Lenny Belardo’s character the way Prokofiev folded the French horn into the Wolf’s.” The song is deployed at moments that reveal critical new plot developments that are really the Pope at his purest.

Sorrentino also deploys Techno at moments that seem particularly surreal; the twitching scratch of a beat in Labradford’s “By Chris Johnston, Craig Markva, Jamie Evans” opens the series with Lenny’s nightmare Urbi et Orbi. The piece lends the slow-mo cinematography and almost sculptural quality of the characters the air of a dance. It balances the stillness and motion of the moment, in keeping with Sorrentino’s neomodernist aesthetic.

And yes, I know it’s technically post-rock. But it sounds close enough to Techno to work in this category.

Pop Singles

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This song will get stuck in your head.

Lenny Belardo is an American, and the show is set in the near future. It only makes sense that Sorrentino adds pop to the aural texture of several of his key moments.

A few songs come to mind: Nada’s “Senza un Perché,” Lotte Kerstner’s cover of “Halo,” by Beyoncé, LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” Flume’s “Never Be Like You,” and that cover of “All Along the Watchtower” that marks the opening sequence. Of these, two are particularly worth closer analysis: the covers of “Halo” and “All Along the Watchtower.”

By choosing Kerstner’s slow, soulful cover over Beyoncé‘s original version, Sorrentino draws our attention to the singularly religious inflection of the lyrics:

Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by your embrace
Baby, I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace
You’re everything I need and more
It’s written all over your face
Baby, I can feel your halo
Pray it won’t fade away

The song frames love as a religious experience, an encounter with a divine other. We can read here the central (albeit de-eroticized) element of Lenny’s spiritual vision; the way he ties together the love of his parents and his belief in God. And the luminescent lyrics work perfectly for the glowing landscape and figures that we see in Africa and Colorado. The lyrics perfectly match the Pope’s solitary walk through the sleeping journalists on the plane:

Hit me like a ray of sun
Burning through my darkest night
You’re the only one that I want
Think I’m addicted to your light
I swore I’d never fall again
But this don’t even feel like falling
Gravity can’t forget
To pull me back to the ground again
Feels like I’ve been awakened
Every rule I had you break it
The risk that I’m taking
I’m never gonna shut you out

The language here practically describes the scene. We are on the plane at night, and Lenny, the only one whom the journalists want to see, has arrived to watch them sleep. Their flight is quite literally defying gravity. As the Pope breaks his rule about meeting journalists, he finds one awake. It’s a risk, but it rewards him with a moment of admiring affirmation.

And we don’t need to consciously apprehend the meaning of the words as we watch the scene to feel their impact. Aesthetically, the song’s dreamy tremor fits well with the soft-focus visuals that Sorrentino uses in that scene and throughout the series.

Secondly, Sorrentino opens most of the episodes with a sequence of the Pope passing nine paintings and a sculpture of Pope St. John Paul II. An instrumental cover of “All Along the Watchtower” plays in most iterations of the sequence. The song’s connotations of cultural revolution represent Lenny’s monumental program of change and remind us of his parents’ own ideological leanings. The irony of the song pairs well with the irony of the visuals, as Lenny’s shooting star disrupts the order of the paintings.

Holy Minimalism

For me, the most striking addition to the repertoire is the heavy use of the Holy Minimalists. Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, and John Tavener, some of the most respected members of the movement, all appear in the playlist.

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The Holy Minimalists: (l-r) Arvo Part, John Tavener, Henryck Gorecki

The Holy Minimalists were a group of composers active from the 1970’s whose work sought to reinvigorate more traditional sacred forms. Often by working in conversation with Eastern Christian formsPärt, like the late Tavener, is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, while Górecki was a Polish Catholicthe Holy Minimalists sought to capture a sense of the eternal in their inventive and dissonant work. Listening to their music, one has the sense of peering through the cracks of our broken human existence to glimpse yawning chasms of infinite glory.

No fewer than 12 works by the Holy Minimalists are featured in the show’s official playlist. I’d like to focus on two pieces, deployed in juxtaposition at one of the most climactic moments in the entire series.

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“Knock, knock.”

As Pius XIII enters the Sistine Chapel to address his assembled cardinals, he is borne aloft by attendants on a Sedia Gestatoria. John Tavener’s haunting dirge for Princess Diana, “Song for Athene,” seems to float in along with him. But just as the climax is about to resolve into a peaceful, triumphant harmony (the part of the song that evokes the Resurrection and the Life eternal), Lenny opens his eyesand the music stops instantly. It’s a chilling moment. In that second, before he even starts to speak, we understand the gist of what is about to follow.

The music only begins again with a single, unnerving note on the piano, when the Pope directs their attention to a mysterious door that has appeared at the other end of the chapel. He continues his dark (and, if we’re being honest, rather magnificent) speech for nearly another eight minutes. The lone note is joined by others, and becomes Arvo Pärt‘s “Lamentabile – ” before concluding with the humiliation of Cardinal Voiello.

I think Sorrentino relies so heavily on the Holy Minimalists in his aural aesthetic to suggest another element of Lenny’s spiritual vision. Throughout the series, Lenny is able to deliver profound wisdom through quiet, concise statements. Simplicity is the garment of his unique insights. And the Holy Minimalists sought to re-present the sacred tradition of Christian music for modernity; their project is consonant with Lenny’s.

It’s also worth pointing out that, in addition to the Holy Minimalists, Sorrentino deploys a few works by regular, ordinary, profane minimalist John Adams (those of you who played Civ IV growing up will recognize his “Shaker Loops: III. Loops and Verses“).

In Sum

I know I’m missing a few things, since the playlist is long, and I’m not a musicologist. But that very fact points to the multiple layers of meaning that Paolo Sorrentino has inscribed in his rich soundtrack. I encourage everyone to give the playlist a serious and attentive listen-through, possibly several. There are gems in there. And if you can go through it (or the show) without getting “Senza un Perché” stuck in your head, you’re doing it wrong.

“The Young Pope” as Neomodernist Television

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There are many ways to analyze HBO’s new limited series, The Young Pope. I’ve read comparisons to Twin Peaks and House of Cards. Some of my friends take it as a commentary on contemporary church politics. Others simply revel in its lush costuming and surreal sense of humor. There’s truth in all of these approaches, but I think none come close enough to identifying the show’s real aesthetic: Neomodernism.

Neomodernism is a small school of visual art created by Andre Durand and Armando Alemdar. A critical response to postmodernist dominance of the art scene in the last decades of the 20th century, Neomodernists explore “spiritual and aesthetic values in art,” as their Manifesto states. Neomodernist painters seek “a new relationship with works of art from the 15th to the 20th century.” They focus on the creative renewal of tradition. And they do so by adhering to nineteen criteria that shape their work. Here they are, lifted from Armando Alemdar’s website:

The Criteria

  • A Neomodernist picture manifests the Idea in the Hegelian sense meaning the Absolute, the spiritual presence in a work of art.
  • A Neomodernist picture has links to the works of art that preceded it and / or antiquity.
  • The nude or the symbol of the nude is the basis of a Neomodernist picture.
  • Every element in a Neomodernist picture is justified in terms of the whole composition.
  • A Neomodernist approach to religious subject matter is detached and philosophical, never an affirmation of faith.
  • A Neomodernist treatment of political or historical subject matter is detached and philosophical, never propaganda.
  • A Neomodernist artist must have sound drawing abilities and a command of the other traditional academic disciplines, such as perspective.
  • A Neomodernist picture concentrates the soul in the eye.
  • A Neomodernist work of art is emblematic rather than psychological.
  • A Neomodernist figurative or abstract picture has Albertian depth, space and light, never stressing the flatness of the canvas surface but exploring its limitless depths.
  • A Neomodernist picture presents scientific principles aesthetically (La Flagellazione, Piero Della Francesca).
  • A Neomodernist work of art hightens the sense of newness, regardless of when it was made.
  • A Neomodernist work of art is tactile.
  • Simplicity of form is Neomodernist.
  • A Neomodernist work of art has movement and stillness simultaneously.
  • Both figurative and abstract Neomodernist pictures pronounce “painterly” values.
  • Neomodernism precedes and supersedes post-modernism.

Clearly, these criteria are tailored for the plastic artsand painting in particular. Among the various examples of proto-Neomodernist that Alemdar draws from art history, all are paintings. Yet I would contend that many of the aforementioned criteria would work with any art form that places at its aesthetic center the tableau. There has been much critical writing on film (and by extension, television) as a primarily visual medium. Directors are primarily distinguished by the nuances of their visual style, rather than the way they use sound. We can, therefore, apply some of the same criteria to film that we use with painting.

And The Young Pope is a perfect example. Director Paolo Sorrentino relishes the visual component of his work. That tendency comes through powerfully in The Young Pope. While the show doesn’t fit all of the nineteen criteria, it does seem to play with many of them. Let’s go through a few:

“A Neomodernist picture has links to the works of art that preceded it and / or antiquity.”

The show isn’t an unambiguous endorsement of Catholic tradition, but it does engage with it. The narrative of TYP centers on a Pope who re-establishes several ancient customs, even as he closes himself off from the world. On the aesthetic level, however, the show’s links to the past are constantly re-emphasized. The costumes reflect sartorial tendencies that largely disappeared after the Second Vatican Council. The Pope placidly examines two works of Renaissance art alongside his confidant and master of ceremonies, Gutierez. In the course of the story, both paintings turn out to reflect the two characters’ inner demons. Another work of art, the Venus of Willendorf, is at the heart of one Cardinal’s sins of lust. Lenny invokes Kubrick and Banksy to justify his isolation. One of the show’s most riveting scenes takes place in a massive reproduction of the Sistine Chapel. And of course, there’s that intro, which features 10 pieces of art with thematic significance for Lenny Belardo’s troubled pontificate. Sorrentino ensures that art and film history saturate The Young Pope.

Neomodernist painters do the same. Andre Durand’s 2000 painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” is a good representative of this quality.

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The painting reworks the classical theme of the Arcadian shepherds most famously portrayed by Poussin. But instead of a tomb bearing the titular inscription, we are shown Damien Hirst’s “Away from the Flock,” a dead sheep preserved in formaldehyde. Durand was present at the Tate Modern when it was vandalizedanother artist poured black ink into the tank and declared that the resultant piece was called “Black Sheep.” The experience conveyed to him a strong sense of the decline of art; a celebration of death, negation, and fragmentation rather than life, affirmation, and the integrated whole. The vibrantly alive human nudewhich, for Neomodernists, is the central axis of meaning in artat the center of the piece contrasts sharply with the dead animal. He is among others in an easy communion; the sheep is isolated. He is subject to decay, as the other figures suggest the waning of a long life. But better to live with others subject to the vicissitudes of time than to exist alone in a state of constant, deathly preservation. In short, we are shown the difference between a living tradition and a deadening individuality. The piece thus serves to critique the anti-traditional death-wish implicit in so much postmodern artespecially Damien Hirst’s work.

This brings us to another of the criteria:

“The nude or the symbol of the nude is the basis of a Neomodernist picture.”

Compared to many other HBO productions, The Young Pope is positively modest. But there is some nudity, particularly at moments of thematic or narrative consequence. When it occurs, it’s often desexualized. The opening shot of the series, the famous and bizarre “baby pyramid” in Venice, fixates on nude infants. Esther, tasked with seducing the Pope, prays in the nude. Lenny is occasionally shown naked. Some of the only memories he retains of his parents take place in a peaceful landscape, and all three members of the family are more or less stripped. The warm glow of the sun on their youthful flesh speaks to an implicit, Edenic innocence. And of course, there are the scenes of Cardinal Dussolier’s (rather perverse) sexual pleasures.

While the nude isn’t as central to the show’s artistic vision in the way that it is in Neomodernist painting, the use of occasional nudity underscores the main theme of the series: loneliness and power. The Young Pope is deeply, principally concerned with how people try to cope with loneliness, and how loneliness interacts with power. The Vatican is a particularly convenient setting for that exploration, as it combines a culture of celibacy and the absolute power of a priest-king. The human body, when it appears, demonstrates some of the ways that loneliness can be overcome. There is eroticism, but eroticism subject to the demands of the spirit.

We can say much the same of Andre Durand’s work. While the nude looms as a much larger figure in his oeuvre than in Sorrentino’s, certain formal and tonal similarities remain. Observe the placement of the bodies in Durand’s “Pietà,” 2006. Compare the image with the parental flash-back scenes in Episode 7 or Episode 8.

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Two related criteria:

“A Neomodernist approach to religious subject matter is detached and philosophical, never an affirmation of faith. A Neomodernist treatment of political or historical subject matter is detached and philosophical, never propaganda.”

It would be impossible to say that The Young Pope is “an affirmation of faith.” Pius himself seems to struggle with belief in God, even in light of the miracles he (probably) works. Theology, though touched upon occasionally, is secondary to matters of Church discipline and ethics. The few moments of genuine spirituality usually come in short, nearly-corny, quietly profound statements (“Under all that ice, could be God,” “He’s lifting the weight of God”). It avoids the twin evils of the ugly liberal partisanship that has marked so many Vatican stories and the preachy conservative propagandizing that can characterize religious film. Instead, we’re given a strangely human story that confounds both sides—even in spite of the show’s manifest popularity among young, traditional Catholics. Lenny may be a saint, but his holiness is thoroughly ambiguous, weighed down by a number of unpleasant personality traits. This puts any viewer (perhaps especially the Catholic one) in an uncomfortable position.

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Neomodernist art should make us uncomfortable, too. Like The Young Pope, Durand’s Neomodernism resists easy classification. He infuses a basically realistic idiom with surreal exaggerations, obvious anachronisms, and intrusions of the fantastic. Moreover, Durand’s work is shot through with eroticism (including homoeroticism), even when he’s depicting sacred subjects. Observe his “Annunciation at Didling,” completed in 2001. Anyone who’s watched most of the series might be forgiven for remembering the utterly bizarre introduction of Tonino Pettola on an Italian hillside.

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Or his rendition of “St. Eustace.”

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These paintings, and others like them, are not set forth by the artist to prove any point. They are not didactic, and they don’t attempt, as the Eastern icons do, to bear the glorious presence of their subjects. Instead, they are a system of symbols arranged with a philosophical detachment.

Moving on:

“A Neomodernist artist must have sound drawing abilities and a command of the other traditional academic disciplines, such as perspective.”

Sorrentino’s technical mastery is evident throughout. Let’s take perspective. I give you:

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Note again how often the vanishing point centers on the Pope; that is, on the human body. Other examples could be cited.

The next relevant criterion can also be dealt with in a similarly brief manner. Durand and Alemdar write,

“A Neomodernist picture concentrates the soul in the eye.”

The hotel scene immediately comes to mind. When Lenny asks the prostitute for her proof of the existence of God, she whips out a camera, snaps a photo, and says, “Your eyes.” She’s not making the old creationist argument from the 90’s. She’s talking about the human soul, which becomes manifest to us in the human faceand preeminently through the eyes.

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The scene is particularly interesting because it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only moment in the series when Lenny allows himself to be photographed. He is disarmed by the prostitute’s beauty, and unsettled by the truth buried in her simple words. But I digress.

Next up:

“A Neomodernist work of art is emblematic rather than psychological.”

I only include this because it’s the one that definitely doesn’t fit TYP. The whole point of the show is psychological exploration, as I’ve already mentioned.

“A Neomodernist figurative or abstract picture has Albertian depth, space and light, never stressing the flatness of the canvas surface but exploring its limitless depths.”

This quality comes through in the ways that The Young Pope makes use of space. Every landscape is treated in such a way that its full aesthetic potential is maximized. This is true of both internal and external backgrounds. For example:

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See also the photo at the top of this post.

“A Neomodernist work of art hightens the sense of newness, regardless of when it was made.”

This is harder to pin down, so I won’t dwell on it. I’ll only refer you to the many reviews that note the show’s peculiarity. People can tell there’s never been anything quite like it on television before. The show’s novelty is part of the reason people kept watching.

“Simplicity of form is Neomodernist.”

Again, a few stills will suffice.

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There are, of course, plenty of moments in The Young Pope where simplicity is anything but the order of the day. Yet not all of Durand’s own work seems rooted in a “simplicity of form.”

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“Arachne,” 2002.

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“Giordano Bruno Burning,” 2000.

So perhaps the quality is malleable.

“A Neomodernist work of art has movement and stillness simultaneously.”

This is another quality that’s difficult to express, but there are scenes that strike a nice balance between the two. One is the frequently alluded-to address to the cardinals. Another is the first homily to the faithful. Yet a third might be the banal advice of the dead popes. Or the (oh-so-Italian) conclusion to Episode 4. Or even the confrontation with Sister Antonia. Probably more.

Durand achieves this quality in several pieces, but I’ll only refer to his 2006 paintings “Coronation of the Virgin” and “St. John the Evangelist.”

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“Neomodernism precedes and supersedes post-modernism.”

I’m genuinely unsure of whether this applies to The Young Pope. Yes, Pius XIII is intent on reforming the Church back to its more “prohibitive” days, before the rot of postmodernism set in. But he’s nothing if not the Byronic hero that achieved new, wider, and stranger expressions in postmodern literature. So I guess I’m torn.

Regardless, I’d argue that there is sufficient reason to believe that Paolo Sorrentino’s new show is the first example of Neomodernist television. Since The Young Pope has just been renewed for a second season, it remains to be seen whether that aesthetic will persist across the larger arc of the story.

Until then, just enjoy this beautiful work of cinematic art.