At a recent talk, I compared our days to the times of the barbarian invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire. It is a fairly common comparison that applies to decadent societies like our own. In the end, I highlighted the need to continue to fight the Culture War and thus oppose the neo-barbarians at the gates.
Afterwards, a friend of mine who is a high school teacher, commented that if my description of barbarians was accurate, then his typical middle class students would actually want to be barbarians. On a separate occasion, another teacher friend of mine made a similar remark by telling me somewhat jokingly after dinner that he would be returning to his barbarians the next day. I was taken aback by both statements and at the same time struck by how true they were.
Normally, we think of being barbarians as something negative, a kind of us-versus-them phenomenon. It applied very well during the Cold War era when the West was threatened by the savage forces of communism. The label fits for today’s terrorists, gangs or drug dealers. However, it is not often used for middle class youth. It is hard to imagine how anyone inside the gates would want to be a barbarian outside—on purpose.
However, that is the sad state of our society. There are people who want to be similar to barbarians on purpose. It is not an accidental fall from grace, but something that is attractive to them. It is not us versus them anymore; it’s the neo-barbarian next door.
I was reminded of these neo-barbarians while reading Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option. He also compares our times to the fall of the Roman Empire. However, he claims the Culture War is over and lost and we need to position ourselves favorably to deal with the new situation of the barbarians inside the gate. He proposes the model of Saint Benedict of Nursia who formed an intentional community as a means of preserving the faith in uncertain times.
The Nature of Barbarians
The problem with such a proposal is found in the nature of the barbarian. A barbarian is by definition one who is lacking refinement, learning, or artistic or literary culture. It is not a person who never obtained a level of culture through some defect or lack of education. Barbarians simply are not interested in culture in general. Civilization holds no attraction to them.
Historically barbarians were brutal people. What characterized them was that they were slaves of their passions, whims and superstitions. They lacked normal restraints and were willing to do anything to gratify their appetites.
Thus, barbarians have been characterized as those who destroyed and killed indiscriminately. They devastated what remained of ordered society, often because it was ordered. They were not satisfied to follow their passions at home, but rather sought out the riches of others, often coming from afar, to loot and plunder Christian communities.
The Neo-barbarian Challenge
Today’s neo-barbarians do not need to live in primitive settings like those at the time of decadent Rome. Our wired, pierced and tattooed neo-barbarians get along quite well in our high-tech world. The poor barbarians of the past were limited by the options to gratify their passions that often came after great effort. Today’s neo-barbarians can find self-gratification at the click of the mouse or swipe of a card. They can self-identify themselves to be whatever they want to be and force others to accept them as such.
They can also be brutal as seen in the culture of death that destroys the unborn babies and elderly who stand in the way of their road to gratification. Through Hollywood, we live in an anti-culture that glorifies the barbaric, the violent, the sensual and the crude. The barbarians of yore have nothing to compare to our own. Let’s face it, everyone, especially those who survived the sixties onward, in some way fights with the neo-barbarian within. We are already heavily infiltrated by a neo-barbarian mentality.
Trusting the Barbarians to be Barbarians
And that is the problem with Dreher’s Benedict Option. For him, the only response that still remains is to form intentional communities amid the neo-barbarians to “provide an unintentional political witness to secular culture,” which will overwhelm the barbarian by the “sheer humanity of Christian compassion, and the image of human dignity it honors.” He believes that setting up parallel structures inside society will serve to protect and preserve Christian communities under the new neo-barbarian dispensation. We are told we should work with the political establishment to “secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and our own institutions” inside an umbrella of religious liberty.
However, barbarians don’t like parallel structures; they don’t like structures at all. They don’t co-exist well with anyone. They don’t keep their agreements or respect religious liberty. They are not impressed by the holy lives of the monks whose monastery they are plundering. You can trust barbarians to always be barbarians.
A Precarious Situation
We live in precarious times. The vestiges of moral law stand as walls to protect the remnants of order in society. One only needs to look at how the radical liberals treat us now at universities and statehouses, and in the public square, to have an idea of what is in store for us if we even so slightly abandon the field. It is enough for my teacher friends to leave the little neo-barbarians in their classrooms alone for a short time for chaos to reign.
Should we disengage from the Culture War and follow a policy of “increasing and unstoppable fragmentation” which facilitates the building of “thriving sub-cultures,” you can trust the neo-barbarians to respond like neo-barbarians. They will target our intentional communities (and monasteries), which will be like low-hanging fruit, ripe for politically correct marauders and savage judicial fiats to steal.
Continued cultural engagement and maximum political action, however imperfect, are the only ways to hinder and confront this scenario. We forget that the Culture War began as a war of self-defense. You can’t just call off a war of self-defense without losing your freedom.
Benedict is Still Needed
But a Culture War of self-defense is not enough.
We need to take the offense and address directly the neo-barbarian within. In this sense, Benedict can still be an option. However, we need to see another side of Benedict. Historically, Benedict did not passively wait out the barbarian storm. He displayed a daring willingness to defy the superstitions and vices of his day.
He understood that barbarians respect strength of character. What impressed and later converted the barbarians was the conviction and courage of brave men who were unafraid to denounce the evils that oppressed all society at the time. Thus, they were captivated by fiery souls like Saint Benedict himself, who threw down their idols in Monte Casino; Saint Boniface in Germany who chopped down their sacred oak tree at Geismar; Saint Patrick who defied the Druids and lit the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. Souls like these, working with God’s grace, captured the primitive imagination of the barbarians. Whole peoples converted to the one true Faith.
Wherever the Church has gone, it has embarked upon the task of channeling the primitive energy of barbarians to the worship and service of the one true God. These barbarian converts, afire with the love of God, have often been the salvation of decadent civilizations like that of Rome. They later became missionaries and crusaders.
Perhaps people are waiting for these new Benedicts in our postmodern times. The evils of the day weigh heavily upon us all. What will awe and convert today’s neo-barbarians will be souls aflame with incredible convictions and courage who will defy death and its culture and capture their wandering imaginations. They will be drawn to disciplined and brave hearts that calm the frenetic intemperance of their sinful and disordered lives. With Divine grace, many will convert and burn with love for the one true God and thus help rescue our decadent civilization and the little children trapped in our neo-barbarian culture.