Tolkien Alternatives to the “Benedict Option”

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What’s happened to the world?

Even a quick glance at the newsfeeds will confirm it: times are dark, full of spiritual confusions and physical dangers. Sweeping judicial fiats have redefined the nature of human relationships with a speed, boldness, and radicalness that even Comrade O’Brien might find injudicious; educational revisionists now baldly proclaim their utilitarian goals to condition young people to be consumerist, economic agents instead of forming them into citizens of virtue and insight; terrorist madmen lie hidden throughout Western civilization, making hay on liberalism’s unwillingness even to question its pluralist shibboleths; an exceedingly brazen political class no longer even attempts to hide is malfeasance, but rather highlights it as a point of pride or a sign of cunning; “dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria!”

As a description of reality, perhaps the above account contains a smattering of hyperbole. But as a description of an increasingly common perception of reality, the exaggeration is accurate and revealing. Certainly, something unsettling has risen to the surface of our national self-understanding, and with it has come a great deal of disorientation. Whatever categories common folks used before to gauge the goings-on of the world seem to have disintegrated. Old political fusions have fizzled out, and men and women of faith who, like their compatriots, relied on those fusions to make sense of their world are now vulnerable to the same disorientations that grip their non-religious counterparts. Our world is a mess, and whether stated explicitly or simply intuited, the most pressing, most common question now is the one Francis Shaeffer gave us: How should we then live?

Specific answers to that question are largely prudential and must be almost entirely local. But it is difficult for parents, students, pastors, voters, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers even to consider their local responses without at least positing a working foundation for that response, without adopting some schema of analysis that might bring a modicum of stability to their hearts and minds, without acquiring some working, cultural lexicon that will service at least long enough to acclimate them to the underlying verity that many of us are just recently rediscovering: we are exiles, strangers in a strange land. How are we to make it in this, our exile?

To this end, there have been a number of suggested treatments for our cultural vertigo. Among the more well-known is what has been called the Benedict Option. Less discussed prescriptions include the Escriva Option and the Gregory Option. Each of these are meant to suggest some new starting place for self-understanding, some new filter or working worldview whereby people of faith can come to grips with their surroundings and get on with the business of living the faith. The hope is that, by looking to history and the examples of the saints, one might rediscover a practical grammar of life, and in each of these options there is much good to be considered.

Complimentary to these, I now propose, is an additional set of filters, an additional vocabulary we might use to better understand the challenges of living in modern day America. But I propose drawing insight not from history but rather from art, not from saints but rather from hobbits.

(It is worth noting, by the way, that in such times, a core value of art comes to the fore. Both literally and metaphorically, art manifests icons of what past generations have discovered is true, and these icons, reconsidered and re-appropriated, can serve as aids to orientation in times of distress. In short, art is, among other things, a mirror to help us see ourselves better.)

Of the three options I describe below, I think only one is valid for Christians, but all three are recognizable. I call these the Boromir Option, the Bombadil Option, and the Gamgee Option. In proposing these, I am of course assuming (not unreasonably) that readers are familiar with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But if you are not, please do yourself the favor of ignoring this article in favor of picking up that classic. It will do you loads more good than I can when it comes to understanding the days in which we live.

The Boromir Option
The Boromir Option goes like this: The old alliances are dead. Once we could count on our politicians to maintain and protect basic Christian premises, but this is no longer the case. The stress points of cultural fusionism’s weld may have snapped apart, but do not fear! The old alliances can be revived! The Culture War only appears to be lost, but the war wages on! “Believe not that in America the blood of our founders is spent, nor all its pride and dignity forgotten!” The glory of past days can be renewed, if only we can find new champions, new strongmen to lead the charge. The Enemy has crept too far into our homes and institutions, has haunted our borders too long! But with redoubled force, we can drive him back out again! Let us seize political might! (Of course, will wield that power with good intentions and return it to the people when we’re done with it.) Let us take the Ring of the enemy and use it against him! “Wielding it the Free Lords of the Free may surely defeat the Enemy!”

The Boromir Option, sadly, is all too recognizable, even amongst Christians. Many assumed culture is built on the notion of social contract, but are now surprised by folks who come along demanding we profoundly change the status quo. In reaction, many rise up to support strongmen who can turn the tide based solely on their own strength and force of personality. The temptation to place unrealistic expectations in political leaders to solve serious and persistent problems becomes a more attractive alternative to the much harder but more sustainable long-term process of individual reform and cultural renewal. And because culture has come to be defined in terms of conflict—a Marxist premise accepted even by many Culture Warriors—people want champions to win for them. Boromir is a prince who wins.

The danger of the Boromir Option, however, is clear to those who know Boromir’s end: corruption. And yet, because its banner is the banner of just causes, the danger of this corruption seems manageable, and risking it appears necessary, bold, even heroic. It is important, even in the political sphere, to resist evil. And yet, it is not in the strength of horses nor in the hearts of princes where we will find our peace and safety. As we all know, power tends to corrupt. May those of us who readily trot out that trope be especially sure to remember it, and may Christians reject the Boromir Option.

The Bombadil Option
Like the Boromir Option, which is built on the truth that evil must be resisted, the Bombadil Option is also built on an important truth: Providence is in control. Because of this, we can confidently turn up our noses to the power of evil and snap our fingers in its face. Evil is, in the end, subject completely to God, and corruption is hedged in by Providence. All this is an occasion for much joy, and even mirth.

So far, so good. But the Bombadil Option goes further. Our trust in Providence can be twisted into an avoidance of conflict. The fight against the corruption of the world, says Bombadil, is not our fight. That fight is won, and we need not get mixed up in culture wars, politics, institutional struggles. Like Tom Bombadil, we will be content to stay within the boundaries of our making and “heed no nightly noises.” We will retreat to little islands of sanity and await the eschaton in peace. The struggles of the outer lands are, after all, of little consequence for those of us with a more heavenly home.

Some would claim the Bombadil Option looks much like the Benedict Option. Are not both a retreat from the world? But by the Bombadil Option, I do not mean the sort of “retreat from the world” you find in the desert fathers or in monasticism. These are flights from the distractions of civilization so as to be all the more focused on fighting for civilization. The Bombadil Option, however, is the mistaken belief that we can withdraw from the fight altogether. It seeks to build sub-cultures insulated against the goings-on of the world. It claims we can take our salvation, so to speak, and lock it up for safekeeping until all the uncouth bickering outside is over. In the meantime, we can make up happy songs and divorce ourselves from the difficulties of our sanctification.

Crafting comfortable sub-cultures—understood as our building our own type of music, movies, books, institutions, and any other “Christianized” versions of whatever the culture-at-large offers, wholly separate from culture—is itself a highly problematic strategy for living in exile. Speaking as a former evangelical, I can say that the evangelical traditions are a bit more prone to this sort of thing. But as the culture itself grows more antithetical to the Gospel, it will become more and more tempting for Christians of all stripes to want to retreat en toto from culture and build micro-cultures of our own, to live like Bombadil, “withdrawn into a little land, within the bounds [we] have set…waiting perhaps for a change of days.”

To be sure, there are times and circumstances where prudent “retreats” from the world must and should be made: for example, prayer, the Mass, the homes we build to raise our children. But each of these are also preparations for launching back into the world. As a permanent strategy, the Bombadil Option is a nonstarter. Christ came not for the healthy, but for the sick. As Christ’s mystical body, the Church is to bring the love of Christ to the world. Love itself is an outward orientation, a kenosis, and while our own outpouring must begin by receiving Christ’s love, we must not cork up the blessings we receive and spirit them away to be stored in the basement. We must carry on into the darkness. Bombadil’s house may bring refreshment, but we shouldn’t want to live there.

The Gamgee Option
Lastly comes the Gamgee Option. Here are its basic principles: Like Sam Gamgee, we know we are little things, incapable of moving the gears of the great. We know we are not the world’s saviors, but the companions of the world’s savior. We are, rather, the servants of him who walks a sorrowful road of sacrifice. We remember that it is our master’s job to save the world, our master’s to eradicate evil, to root it out, to burn it in the fires of his Sacred Heart. Because we walk alongside our master, his path is ours, and his death may well be ours as well. But our primary job is to be available to our master, to adopt the same humble attitude of Sam, the servant of him who bore the evil of the world, the little hobbit who “knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden…[that] the one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”

The Gamgee Option is remarkably Benedictine, especially if by Benedictine we refer to Benedict XVI who saw himself as “a humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard” and expressed this humility so beautifully in Deus Caritas Est:

There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14).

Humility, that child of “common hobbit-sense,” and the lack of presumption—these are the qualities that save us from the errors of Boromir and the misguided blinders of Bombadil. How exactly we live with humility and without presumption is, as I noted, largely a prudential and localized issue. But as we struggle to re-appropriate an understanding of ourselves as strangers living in a strange land, we can rest assured that it is our humble faithfulness, not our political success, not any lack of being bruised by our journey, which will be rewarded. And then, at the end of our journey, after (by God’s grace) we have remained as faithful as a Gamgee, we will be able, “with bewilderment and great joy,” to look out on what grace, and not man, has wrought in the world, and we can ask, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

David Michael Phelps

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David Michael Phelps works as a writer, documentary producer, and literature professor. As a producer and writer he has worked with Courage, St. Michael's Abbey, 10 West Studios, the Acton Institute, and a number of other production firms. His work includes For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, Vineyard of Light, Our Great Exchange, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, and various short-form commercial and non-profit projects. David and his wife, Cheri, have four children and are parishioners of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Grand Rapids, MI.

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