Friday, May 5, 2017

The Benedict Option Disaster and The Marian Option Danger

A friend sent me links to two National Catholic Register articles by author and philosopher Carrie Gress (links to her blog) in which she promotes "The Marian Option" against "The Benedict Option." Those are labels given to two ways for Catholics to live in a morally conflicted society.
Before Taking the Benedict Option Try the Marian Option

On Mary's Birthday: 15 Ways to Live the Marian Option
The Benedict Option, a book by Rod Dreher*, suggests withdrawing from much of society to develop and protect Christian communities and heritage. My family, at times, has dipped its toes into this philosophy of life. The trend of Christians pulling their kids from public schools and putting them in Christian schools or homeschooling their children is a reflection of the concept. There have been times when I've compared the escalation of such practices to the Amish. And while some may find that comparison derogatory, I find it quaint. For as separated as the Amish are from society, they ironically garner a great deal of respect by it.

[*Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative, was raised Methodist, converted to Catholicism, and is now part of Eastern Orthodoxy, (Wikipedia). Of course by the time you read this, he could be Amish. Not without its critics, the book does have its endorsements:
“A terrific book: provocative in its content, shrewd in its insights, vivid and engaging in its style.  The strength of The Benedict Option is not just its analysis of our culture’s developing problems but its outline of practical ways Christians can survive and thrive in a dramatically different America.  This is an invaluable tool for understanding our times and acting as faithful believers.”—Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia]
The Marian Option, as described by Gress in several blog posts and articles, describes a life that is focused even further inward than the Benedict Option. In one blog Gress describes 15 ways to live the Marian Option; everyone of them is spiritually inward, further isolating the person from even her family. Now, the post you're reading challenges Gress to be clearer. For what she suggests is not what she is doing by being a wife, mother, and prolific author and columnist. But taking her blog posts at face value, The Marian Option (and also The Benedict Option) seem contrary to Scripture and how the Church explains our role in society. [Gress has communicated with me, see note at end.]

Israel In Babylon
When my friend first wrote me, she wisely was searching for the Scripture wherein God told the Israelites in exile to live naturally among the pagans of Babylon and not go off and hide, nor stay inside and just pray. The passage is this:
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 29: 4-9)
Salt and Light
The Jeremiah passage reminds me a great deal of Christ's command in the Sermon on the Mount:
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5: 13-16)
I have always embraced such a philosophy of life for the Christian living in a morally conflicted society. As a filmmaker and a Christian, I have always seen Hollywood as a field I wanted to work in, not a field to run from.

For nearly 50 years now I've occasionally handed out a two-sided green business card to Christians who engage me in discussions about the film industry.

On Side One it reads:
Consider a career as a Cultural Influencer. As a Christian you can light some candles in the darkness of our society. Prepare for a career in secular media or entertainment. Then, as you excel and gain recognition, use your influence to impart Biblical Christian values to the world. (over)
On Side Two it reads:
Pray for the Christians attempting to influence our society with Biblical values and ideas through their vocations in Television, Film, Art, Entertainment, Literature, Journalism, Education, Academe, Professional Sports and Politics. God has called these individuals and gifted them like Bezalel (Exodus 31, 25, 36) to be Salt and Light in our culture. (over)
I grew up in a fairly isolated Evangelical Christian home. I didn't convert to Catholicism until I was 51. I wrote a memoir about the journey, Growing Up Christian: In the Introduction to Part 1 I write:
The “orphanage” of which I became a part left me restless. For most of my youth it was as if I had been bundled-up in a thick wool sweater, a rain slicker and galoshes, then  urged to hunker down in a church basement and pray for the cultural storm to pass. If we grew tired of praying, we could watch badly made Christian movies projected onto  cinderblock walls. It was myopic, claustrophobic and irrational. Where was the faith that promised to teach us how to don swim trunks and navigate the shark infested surf? Where was life in all its fullness and adventure? (Growing Up Christian: Searching for a Reasonable Faith in the Heartland of America, p 6.)
15 Ways to Live The Marian Option
I'm not going to quote from Gress's article. You can link to it above, but the 15 Ways include spiritual reading, and a number of different ways to pray and thus make Mary (not Jesus) the center of your life.  (Yes, that's a little Protestant dig...which I think is appropriately Catholic. I love Mary, I pray the Rosary a lot, but my faith is really in Jesus not Mary.)

Gress's 15 Ways, by themselves, suggest to me why the Catholic children of very devout mothers and fathers, have left the church. In short, it's because the kids see little help from a life devoted to prayer that does not inform them in the practical ways of how to live among the pagans in Babylon. The Benedict Options says, "get out," and The Marian Option says "go inward."

Read carefully the 15 ways she lists. NOT ONE OF THEM is in service to others, NOT ONE OF THEM engages the culture or challenges it, NOT ONE OF THEM is involved in Christ’s command to be Salt and Light to society. EVERY ONE OF THEM suggests: "Go hide in your basement and pray until the storm passes over."

BUT, the storm will only gain strength unless Christians are IN the CULTURE being SALT AND LIGHT as Christ was. Just as The Benedict Options tells Catholics to retreat from public schools, so The Marian Option suggests, "Just pray about it in your closet."

This kind of thinking is why we have so many immoral films coming out of Hollywood and why politicians have embraced abortion. When Christians abdicate their responsibility to be actively, personally, and professionally engaged in culture the vacuum is filled with people that are not Christians. ("...trampled underfoot."). We can therefore expect abortion and immorality in entertainment. Christians have no justification to complain. They walked away, and in so doing they invited the devil to step in. On a personal level I have approached dozens of Christians to invest in motion picture development and production. Yes, it's very risky from an investment perspective. But every one of the Christians I've approached would rather keep their money away from risk and let culture deteriorate. Instead, they do the safe thing (safe for their money). They assuage their guilt by signing up on Facebook for yet another "40 Days for Life" prayer vigil.

Jesus Christ did not hide in the basement and pray. In the public square he socialized with and challenged the publicans, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors and the hypocrites that ran the "church." And, by Christ's works, in their presence, he contradicted them.

St. John Paul The Great
Gress tries to weasel her way out of this problem by citing John Paul II and claims that John Paul II lived out the Marian Option.

Oh, really? Well, that's not all he did.

Sure, John Paul II had a fervent devotion to Mary, and we might conclude that his ability to effect and affect culture was because of this Marian devotion, and he may have practiced everyone of the 15 ways to live out the Marian Option, Gress cites. BUT HE DIDN’T STOP THERE.

Read again, Gress’ description of what John Paul II did in her essay "Before Taking...."
Wojtyla’s life offers us something of a field guide for living under religious persecution. He faced it first under the Nazi’s deadly form of social engineering, which involved erasing certainly the Jews but also Poles from the Third Reich. Through a combination of determination, humor, prudence, and faith, he not only survived the war but also aided others, including many Jews. Then, under Soviet Communism, Wojtyla rose through the episcopal ranks, eventually becoming the second most powerful prelate in Poland. Cunning, patience, adapting to adversity, and again (as always) faith, helped him as the Bishop of Krakow and, later, as Pope John Paul II, the Bishop of Rome, to chip away at Communism and remind those behind the Iron Curtain the truth about themselves: that they were made to love and serve God, not the Soviet machine.
Nothing she lists there could have happened if the only thing he did was do "live out" her 15 Ways. John Paul II, spiritually, may have been Marian, but his apostolate ministry was all outward, sly, intelligent, confrontational...the opposite of The Benedict Option.

The Battle ofLepanto
And by the way, the battle of Lepanto would NOT have been won had the Pope ONLY asked Christians to pray the Rosary. BEFORE he asked people to pray the Rosary he asked for Christian Kings to mount a armada to confront the Ottoman Empire. And if you read carefully the military accounts, the Christian force was only marginally smaller (not vastly smaller), and the Christian armada totally outgunned the Ottoman’s, and while the Christian galley ships were manned by volunteers, the Ottoman’s were manned by enslaved Christians, who turned on the Ottomans when opportunity came. There were numerous differences that made the Christian force very capable of defeating the Ottoman’s. It was not as lopsided as you might expect by hearing this story from Rosary champions. Oh, I believe the Rosary was instrumental. But clearly, the Marian Option ALONE as Gress describes it in the 15 Ways, would never have beaten the Ottomans, nor help to destroy the Communist reign Easter Europe which John Paul II was able to contribute.

The Courage Option 
Gress over simplifies the process.  It's not just prayer and spiritual reading and being devoted to Mary. That's all inward stuff. It's good stuff, but it's not enough.

The option too many Catholics shy away from is The Courage Option... to engage and get in the face of what is wrong and confront it, like John Paul II did repeatedly, covertly, and with great slight of hand. And, and times, The Courage Option may require great military might and sacrifice in blood, arms, and lives as evidence at Lepanto.

==== Cassie Gress replies via email:

Dear Stan,

Thanks so much for your email and your concern.

Yes, I would agree that there must be some confusion about what I mean if you have the impression that I am in any way suggesting a moving away from one's active life-- I assure you it is quite the contrary. (Much of the confusion could be because my work at Register is directed at a Catholic audience?) Marian devotion is in no way a separation from one's vocation (particularly to family life), nor a separation from our relationship with Christ (and the whole Trinity), but an enhancement of all of these.

I suspect some of your concerns will be clarified by the book, which has three chapters that go through significant geopolitical events that involved either Marian apparitions or people with strong Marian devotion. Moreover, I have a chapter on the life of Pope John Paul II as "field guide" explaining how he lived under Christian persecution. These are all very active witnesses to people living in very difficult situations that find solace and strength through their devotion to Mary and her Son.

I apologize for the confusion and again, I believe much of it will be clarified in the book.

Best to you, your wife, and your important work.

In Christ,


And I responded:

Dear Carrie,

I do not believe you are trying to tell people to move away from the “active” life as you call it. The confusion is not because you are writing for a Catholic audience. That is perhaps the crux of the problem from my perspective. Catholics (as Evangelical Christians) have a weakness. Too many believe that if they spend their time in prayer and reading spiritual books, and going to Bible studies they are somehow involved in actively engaging culture and being Salt and Light to it. That is a fallacy. JPII proves it. And you do too by being a mother and a writer. You are not spending your time just doing the 15 things you list in the one essay…but that is what the essay suggests.

Your article in the 15 Ways to Live The Marian Option is all inward. It tells us explicitly that we can live The Marian Option entirely in our prayer closet. 

That’s my objection.

Many people will read your blogs and NCR articles. Fewer will read your book.

I do not doubt that a devotion to Mary can bring solace and strength in any situation. 

So, by definition, is living The Marian Option part of that apostolate activity, or is it a focus on prayer and spiritual reading as delineated in the 15 Way essay? Perhaps that’s my problem. Perhaps you mean that The Marian Option is  only part of being an effective Christian in society. 

That’s my challenge….====

Carrie further replied and agreed that The Marian Option is intended as an inward spirituality that informs and motivates a person's outward apostolic work. She has promised to make the clear in future writings. 

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