Let’s start with two simple facts. All of us have limited time. Most of us have limited funds. Based on those facts, encouraging people to read a certain book or books is not a neutral act. Of course, it’s a long way from the sort of counsel on which planets turn. But time wasted is time lost, permanently. And likewise, discouraging people from reading good and fruitful material is a form of dishonesty. It’s a kind of theft—especially when contempt for the content of a book substitutes for intelligent criticism. Drive-by shootings are easy. Thinking is hard.
With that in mind, let me strongly encourage readers to buy, read, and thoroughly absorb two important new books: Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes. Dreher (Orthodox) is an articulate, provocative, and insightful social commentator. Esolen (Catholic) is a distinguished scholar and educator whose English translation of Dante Alighieri’s majestic Divine Comedy ranks among the finest available anywhere.
Neither man’s book disappoints in the power of its arguments. Both men have the gift of combining erudition with common sense, and of making their ideas available and engaging to the harried ordinary reader. Both books offer a tough, frank, and true assessment of contemporary American culture. Both also share an adult Christian grasp of the virtue of hope and a deep trust in the goodness of God. Each offers practical steps forward in sustaining and rebuilding Christian life in confused times.
And we’d be foolish to stop there. The works of Dreher and Esolen, as valuable as they are, don’t stand alone. They’re part of a much larger Christian (and non-Christian) critique of modern, neoliberal consumer life that’s developed organically over the past several decades and that traces its roots to sources as varied as Joseph Ratzinger, Augusto Del Noce, George Parkin Grant, Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch, Neil Postman, David L. Schindler, Patrick Deneen, Michael Hanby, and others.
In reality, Dreher and Esolen have immediate forerunners in at least three other important but under-appreciated books: How the West Really Lost God and It’s Dangerous to Believe, both by scholar Mary Eberstadt; and Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society by R. R. Reno, theologian and editor of First Things.
All of these authors are fallible. All have their limitations. None of their works are above criticism and disagreement. But their books do have substance, and the authors argue their cases with a bit more discipline and logic—and less hyperbole—than do some other nationally respected authors who’ve described the rise of Donald Trump as an extinction-level event. The point is this: When they suggest that something’s gone seriously wrong with our nation’s culture, and further suggest what American Christians might need to do about it, Dreher and Esolen have plenty of persuasive company. They’re stating the obvious, and doing it well, to all but the willfully blind.
On March 10, in its “Acts of Faith” column, the Washington Post published an article titled “The new alarmism: How some Christians are stoking fear rather than hope.” In it, the writer takes Dreher and Esolen (and, I’m happy to add, me) to task for allegedly heightening fear with books “tinged with a bitterness and resentment and sense of loss that carries the whiff of privilege threatened rather than witness compromised.” This is just weird, an expression of the writer’s contempt for discomforting ideas rather than real criticism of the actual content of the books he so truculently dismisses. But readers should decide for themselves. A quick internet browse of Dreher’s and Esolen’s other works will give a taste of what to expect. It would also involve more effort than apparently went into the Post piece.
But do let’s pause for a moment on that word “alarmism.”
The Word of God has a generous collection of alarmisms: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse”; “repent and believe in the Gospel”; you “brood of vipers”; you “whitened sepulchres”; the parable of the sheep and goats, among many others—all familiar terrain for the believer. Jesus had the awkward habit of talking about hell—far more often, in fact, than St. Paul ever did. Pope Francis is a compelling alarmist when he speaks about our destruction of the environment and our treatment of the poor. Irenaeus was an alarmist. Augustine was an alarmist. Basil was an alarmist. John Calvin and the Reformers, both Protestant and Catholic, were alarmists. Georges Bernanos, the great French Catholic novelist and an accomplished alarmist, described the Christian virtue of hope as “despair overcome,” and he had a particular disgust for the American cult of optimism, which he called “whistling past the graveyard.”
Pessimism is the selfish refusal to hope; a surrender to the world as it is; a repudiation of trust in the goodness of God, his love for us, and his desire for our joy, no matter how challenging our circumstances. This pessimism is precisely what the books by Dreher, Esolen, and others (including, I hope, my own) seek to work against. Naming the problems in a culture truthfully, and pointing a way forward for those awake enough to notice, is neither bleak nor negative. It’s called Christian realism, and it’s a virus that’s going around.
If that’s also a “new alarmism,” then we need more of it, not less.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap, is the archbishop of Philadelphia and author, most recently, of Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World.