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Reviewing 'The Boniface Option'
If 'The Ben Op' Was By A Brawly Calvinist Memelord From Moscow, Idaho...
The Boniface Option is a strange book. I’d say eighty percent of it already appeared in The Benedict Option (I’m certainly not accusing author Andrew Isker of plagiarism; I’m simply saying that the ideas are not new). But this book is just over half as long, and the ideas have been re-imagined here as pugnacious and resentful. If you had ever wondered how The Benedict Option would have been if its author were a late-millennial Calvinist Memelord Of Moscow, Idaho, well, now you have your answer.
Let me emphasize at the top of this review that I share Isker’s strong distaste for what he calls “Trashworld”: this decadent, hedonistic, lawless culture that dominates the post-Christian West. If you are a serious Christian, how could you not? Isker, who only focuses on his fellow Protestants, has a special loathing for Evangelicals he believes to be weak, winsome compromisers. And look, I share his frustration with these fellow believers, who sometimes act as if they care more about being nice than being holy. How is it that America has become a country where children are sexually mutilated, and in some states can be seized from their parents for this purpose, and most Christians — even conservative ones, of all churches — just shrug? What the hell is wrong with us?
Though Isker is co-author of a previous volume about Christian nationalism, The Boniface Option is not remotely a rah-rah, Jesus-Is-American tract. He writes to bash people on the left and right who believe in spreading “our values” as Americans to the rest of the world:
What they mean by “our values” is a world where human beings are divorced as much as they possibly can be from God’s creation and created order so that they can be fit subjects for modern liberal consumerist society. They want to take relatively impoverished traditional societies, many of which have already suffered greatly under Bolshevism and Stalinism, and strip away their heritage, their rootedness to their homes and villages and families, and whatever traditional morality and Christian religion survived Communist rule so as to assimilate them into the Borg Collective, where they will be trained to wait alone in their pods, consuming terabytes of porn while they wait for the next Marvel movie to come out. That is the “freedom and democracy” our regime seeks to spread. That is the “freedom and democracy” they believe Americans cherish. That is “our values.”
That’s pungent stuff, and he’s right. I was surprised but pleased to see Isker rolling his eyes at Christian conservatives who cope with our impoverishment and disinheritance by telling themselves that widespread gun ownership indicates that our tribe can only be pushed so far. The pastor writes, “If mutilating the genitals of children isn’t enough to motivate the conservative masses into violent revolt, nothing is going to cause that.”
Because this review is mostly critical, I want to go on record here affirming that broadly speaking, I share Andrew Isker’s disgust with the world as it is. What sets us apart is mostly what to do about it. I say “mostly” because even I, on my angriest days, can’t come close to mustering the rage Isker brings to nearly every page in this book.
Isker is a sharp writer, but an undisciplined one. The choleric contempt suffusing The Boniface Option — henceforth, the Bon Op — is ultimately alienating. For most of the book, I found myself nodding along, saying, “Yeah, he’s right about that.” But over and over, Isker — a young Minnesota pastor who was trained by the ever-combative Douglas Wilson — undermines his case by responding with febrile intensity. Here’s a typical line: "Men with the spirit of holy war within them will be what brings down the idols of this fetid, corpulent, repulsive world."
Gosh. There’s a lot of that in the pages of this short book. The word “disgusting” appears eleven times. The phrase “disgusting world of filth,” three times; the word “hate,” thirty-nine times. You get the feeling that Isker wrote this with trembling fingers, two tics away from a gran mal seizure, and had to summon everything he had to keep himself from agonizing over threats to our precious bodily fluids.
(You think I’m kidding? A pretty good chapter on how conservatives ought to care about the kind of food we produce and eat — I got there first in Crunchy Cons (2006) — goes off the rails with speculation about how seed oils might have sapped the testosterone supply in menfolk. I know that seed oils is a thing these days among a certain faction of the Very Online Right, but in a book of only 150 pages about how Christians should respond aggressively to the collapse of our civilizational order, this is … weird.)
This is a book written by an angry young man, for angry young men. I don’t say that to criticize, but to observe. If you aren’t Very Online, you will wonder why the word “bugman” keeps popping up, and “globohomo,” as well as other terms and phrases familiar to memelords. Here’s a passage:
Another phrase you will find in the pages of this book is fake and gay. What may seem like a transgressive, sophomoric internet pejorative has far more meaning than you may think.
Trashworld is inherently not real. It is a massive, revolutionary superstructure made possible by the technological progress and the material abundance of industrial society which allows a society to continue to function despite running 180 degrees from the created order. The reason something like Trashworld never came into being in the pre-modern world is that without the unprecedented wealth created by industrialism, such a civilization would immediately collapse. The fakeness of Trashworld can therefore seem to keep going indefinitely because the social fabric required to keep a premodern civilization functioning economically has been at least temporarily bypassed by unparalleled industrial production. To those who rule over us, human-scaled life is no longer necessary. If anything, to them, it is an obstacle.
That’s the “fake” — and it’s a good insight. Isker’s explanation of how he uses “gay” in this sense is also fairly insightful, in a similar sense as how Dante construed homosexuality in the Divine Comedy. I’m serious. In the Commedia, Dante’s punishment for the “sodomites” reflects their restless and fruitless search for pleasurable experiences. In the Commedia, sodomy is foremost a spiritual orientation. For his part, Isker says the dominant culture today wants to make us “spiritually homosexual,” in the sense that we are “uprooted and alone,” and “only concerned with satisfying [our] immediate desires.”
I get all that. These are interesting points. But simply as a matter of rhetorical choice, it is hard to take seriously a book whose author points to the decadent culture around us and sneers, “It’s fake and gay!” The Boniface Option is not a book that tries to win readers over — except for those capable of being insulted and humiliated into capitulation — but rather to rally the already-converted. And men. Isker laments the fact that women gained the right to vote, because it violates his ideal of patriarchy. He implicates women’s suffrage in the outbreak of child transgenderism. It’s that kind of book.
Here is how Isker encourages his readers to abandon public education for Christian schooling:
You must do all that you can to liberate them from the government internment day camps, where they are at their greatest danger of physical and sexual assault, and where their souls are in extreme danger of total destruction. There is no gentle way to put this: the public school is the incubator of the bugman. It is the paideia of globohomo.
If you’re the kind of person whose idea of discourse about education is calling public schools “government internment day camps” where bugmen are incubated into globohomo, then this book is for you. Others may well share Isker’s views on how public schools disciple students into a corrupt cultural worldview, but also grasp that he’s not interested in thinking and conversing, but only emoting and getting high-fives from church bros for owning the libs. I can’t emphasize this enough: The Boniface Option is a book for angry young men who enjoy being angry, young, and male.
That said, if you aren’t angry at what this world has become, you aren’t paying attention. Who can live on that, though? Who should want to live on it? I’ve noticed over the years, watching how disciples of Douglas Wilson operate rhetorically, that they typically lead with a quarrelsome overstatement, and take strong negative reaction to it as a sign that they’ve really hit the mark with their criticism. Sometime that’s true, I suppose, but more often than not, it’s because they have been nasty for the sake of being nasty, or petulant because they think that shows strength. I once knew a nice young man who had been trained by Wilson, who leaned into being verbally obnoxious in public discussions, because he genuinely believed this was how one advanced the Kingdom. He truly thought that this was manly. He ended up mostly making people feel sorry for him, if they didn’t outright dislike him for what they took to be his arrogance.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this, especially when so many priests and pastors today shrink from any conflict, preferring to keep the peace above anything else. I admired it a couple of years ago when some of the Wilsonworld folks in Moscow, Idaho, got themselves arrested in Idaho for praying the Psalms in public during 2020’s Covid lockdown (the city paid $300,000 to settle their lawsuit). The church in America needs a lot more of that kind of spirit.
Yet it is striking how over and over, Isker exhorts his readers to cultivate hate. Literally, he does this. “The need of the hour is to teach especially Christians to hate the fake and gay globohomo cinematic universe,” he writes. Of the “fake and gay world,” Isker says, “in order for Christendom to return, it is a world you must learn to hate.” And: “You must teach your children to love the things you love and hate the things you hate. You must overcome your aversion to hate.”
Another Protestant pastor, of an earlier generation, wrote:
There's another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates.... For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That's what hate does.
Those are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., commenting on the command of Our Lord to love those who hate us, and to pray for those who persecute us. Is this the Gospel of Globohomo, according to young Pastor Isker?
"To teach your daughters to hate those enticements, you must make your household a place of deep joy. It must be a refuge from the disgusting world of filth,” Isker writes. Look, I can’t judge Isker’s life; I can only judge what’s on the page here. But there is nothing in this volume that suggests Isker's household — or anywhere, really, aside from maybe his deer blind, his walk-in humidor, or his online community — is a place of deep joy.
To be fair, I am often guilty of the same thing. It’s easy to point out what’s wrong with the world, and much harder to express what brings one joy. As I write this, I’m sitting in my living room listening to the jazz pianist Bill Evans. It’s very easy to slam the degrading crap that is popular culture in Trashworld, and I do it all the time. But how often do you read me writing about the pleasures of a Bill Evans? To do so would require discipline and maturity that’s kind of a reach for most of us. Film critic Roger Ebert observed that there is an inverse relationship between the quality of a movie and the ease of analyzing it. Bad movies are fun and easy to write about; great movies are hard. I was a professional film critic, and know from experience how right Ebert was. But it’s the great movies that keep us going, both going to the movies, and going in life.
It’s also true with cultural criticism of the sort Isker and I do. If we go overboard rhetorically sometimes, it’s surely because, as Flannery O’Connor observed, when the world is deaf, you have to shout. On the other hand, slinging around words and phrases like “bugman,” “globohomo” and “disgusting world of filth” promiscuously has the effect not of making people listen, but of causing them to tune you out as a crank. Please don’t think I’m going at Isker here hypocritically; I see the same faults in myself.
Isker distinguishes his Boniface Option from the Benedict Option primarily in that he wants to go on direct offense. St. Boniface (d. 754) was a missionary priest-monk of the Benedictine order who is best known for chopping down a sacred tree belonging to a fierce tribe of German pagans. They observed what they took to be the superior power of Boniface’s god, and converted. Isker believes that the Benedict Option is too quietist, a head-for-the-hills retreat to hunker down and stay out of trouble.
“You cannot flee to a Benedict Option community and think you and your family will be safe there,” he writes. “Trashworld is everywhere. You may need to withdraw to a better strategic location, but only as a warrior understands retreat for the purpose of later offensive action.”
Well, that’s exactly what I’ve been saying for six years, both in the pages of The Benedict Option, and in subsequent writing and speaking. For example, only four months after the Ben Op was published in 2017, I wrote on The American Conservative (everything is paywalled there now, it seems) about the Ben Op as a “Dunkirk” strategy for Christians: that is, a strategic retreat to save ourselves and retrain in relative safety for re-engaging in the future. But this idea is in the book itself. I can always tell which Ben Op critics have read my book, and which only pretend to have read the book, by whether or not they claim I advocate withdrawal to a utopian community.
I don’t. I fully concede that this is not possible today. Which is why I boost figures like the late Czech Catholic anti-communist dissident Vaclav Benda in my book:
Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word—along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.”
And, also from The Benedict Option:
The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is. Benedictine spirituality teaches us to bear with the world in love and to transform it as the Holy Spirit transforms us. The Benedict Option draws on the virtues in the Rule to change the way Christians approach politics, church, family, community, education, our jobs, sexuality, and technology.
You get the point. I cited St. Benedict’s model because the Benedictines did withdraw from the world, but so they could run more directly to God. And still, most of them maintained a relationship with the world. As I say in the book, one of the contemporary Norcia monks explained to me that he and his brothers at that monastery do engage with pilgrims, to help them spiritually and otherwise, but they also withdraw according to the Rule, for the sake of building themselves into the kind of men God has called them to be. He said they can’t be of any service to lay pilgrims if they haven’t spent time in the cloister, praying, reading the Bible, and working. In my view, this should be the laity’s model too, adapted for life in the world.
Isker says this is quietist, which tells me either that he hasn’t read my book (or perhaps hasn’t understood it), or that he believes anything short of full-on warfare with the world is holy cuckery. This is spiritually immature, to put it kindly. I appreciate his righteous anger at phenomena that ought to be despised, but if Prudence is the Queen of the Virtues, then Andrew Isker is a mouth-frothing Jacobin.
“The Benedict Option is not available to us; it is either the Boniface Option or destruction,” he writes. “You cannot run and hide from Trashworld. Our only option is to despise it and to fight back.”
Leaving aside this inaccurate caricature of the Ben Op, what does Isker mean by despising it and fighting back? Though he doesn’t think so, that’s what we’re both after: rejecting what is evil in this post-Christian world, and devising a method of resistance. Having read Isker’s book, and sincerely appreciating what is good in it, my view is that his Bon Op is primarily about seeking worldly power as a means to impose Christianity — his kind of Christianity — on the people. (In this, the Calvinist Bon Op is a dwarfish parallel to the elvish proposals of the Catholic integralists.)
The Ben Op, by contrast, is about creating the conditions under which we can preserve the ability to search for God (including worshiping Him, and living the full Christian life) under adverse conditions in a growing anti-Christian world, while being faithfully Christian (as opposed to baptizing Nietzsche, as seems to be the coming thing). If the world were to become Christian again — as I hope it will — this will come about as a fruit of revival of the inner life of the Churches.
Again, every page of The Boniface Option bristles with intense anger. Over and over, Isker says that we must train ourselves to "hate" -- but he offers no advice on how to keep that hatred of evil from turning into hatred of human beings, or the hatred from poisoning one’s heart. One gets the clear impression that he thinks hatred in defense of holiness is no vice.
Isker writes as if the enemy is Out There, is Those People. Solzhenitsyn’s warning that the line between Good and Evil passes through the middle of every human heart is lost on Pastor Isker. He has no apparent awareness about how we virtue-seeking, ass-kicking, manly-man Christians could become monsters.
As you readers well know, this is what I allowed to happen to myself unawares after 9/11. I looked upon those who opposed the coming Iraq War in the same way Isker regards winsome Evangelicals: as either fools or cowards who didn’t know how the real world worked.
My own pure hatred of the Muslims who brought down the Twin Towers mastered me, and led me to make fundamental errors in judgment. I will spend the rest of my life repenting for that. By valorizing holy hatred, characterizing it as a source of purifying strength, Isker and his followers are setting themselves up for the same kind of thing.
Perhaps more to the point, their rashness might cost them in ways they can’t anticipate. As a conservative Catholic in 2002, I took the Boniface Option in tearing into the corrupt clerics, rotten institutions, and hideous complacency in the Catholic Church, as revealed by the abuse scandal. I hated half-measures, and scorned fellow Catholics who hemmed and hawed about how it wasn’t as bad as all that. And you know what? To this day, seventeen years after I burned out and lost my Catholic faith, I believe I was far more right than wrong. Many of those people really were cowards. Some of those who encouraged me from behind to keep flailing away with my axe against the crooks and the cretins in the Church, while taking no risks themselves to do the same, were also among the first to criticize me when, spiritually exhausted, my faith collapsed.
My error was thinking I was strong enough to take down a tree as formidable as the evil one that had grown within the garden of the Catholic Church. I believed then that the only brave option was taking on the idol with the axe that was my pen, and chopping like a berserker. I lacked prudence, but more to the point, I did not have the internal spiritual resources necessary to see me through the fight. You readers know my story about how Father Tom Doyle warned me early on that I would be going to places darker than I could imagine, and that I would need to be ready for it. He was right — and I wasn’t ready.
This is the risk that Isker and his followers face. The Boniface Option is not a long book, but though it offers some important insights, it is long on outrage and very, very short on wisdom, especially pastoral reasons. Reading the book, I thought about how my Catholic friends and I were in our early thirties: full of piss and vinegar and certainty of how things ought to be done in the Church. Isker writes as if achieving holiness is a matter of arranging your hatreds correctly, stoking the fires of contempt, and sallying forth to conquer your enemies. At one point, he says that if things go wrong with a particular family, it’s because they haven’t taught their children to hate what they should hate, and love what they should love.
That might be true in some cases. As I wrote in yesterday’s newsletter, demographer Lyman Stone finds that many parents think they’re passing along the faith to their children, but the kids are already checked out on religion. Nevertheless, I wonder what Isker would have done had he been in my shoes a year ago, at a conservative Protestant pastor’s convention, and found himself face to face, in two separate incidents, with pastors whose grown children identified as transgender. Both men wept in front of me, talking about it. Now, I don’t know what specifically those fathers did or did not do raising those kids, but the callowness of Isker’s presumed pastoral response (judging by the style and content of his book) is cruel.
I have a friend who is an experienced pastor, a man who has sacrificed intensely for the Gospel, in ways that most of us never will. And yet, if memory serves, all of his adult children are apostates. This fact grieves him and his wife to no end, as it would me. What could he have done differently? God only knows, and I’m sure the question torments them.
My point is not that we are powerless against the forces of apostasy and chaos, but rather that the enemy is far more cunning and subtle than Andrew Isker seems to think. To be bluntly personal, I once believed that divorce could not happen to people like my wife and me, both devout conservative Christians. Yet it did, and not because either of us were unfaithful to our vows. The causes are complex and tragic, and obviously I can’t talk about them here. My point is that we control far less than we think we do. So what do we do when we lose?
This is what Andrew Isker has no answer for. I don’t know how old Isker is — I’d guess early to mid-thirties, from this photo:
My Catholicism when I was his age had a lot in common with his fierce Calvinism. I wanted to fight. And fighting was important, and necessary! Far too many otherwise good Catholic men (and women, but especially men) did not want to do it. They wanted to preserve their comfort, their peace of mind. Catholic laymen had a lot more freedom to fight openly against the corruption in the Church than priests did, but most did not. Most stayed silent, and conformed, though speaking out would have cost them little. I opposed their servility, and after two years of fighting in the trenches of the abuse scandal, came to despise them as cowards.
But I did not know how to lose. I did not, in the end, have the capacity to suffer loss and defeat without losing my faith. Because I wielded the axe so wildly, I ended up inadvertently chopping off my own legs. In His severe mercy, God allowed me to be crushed in my pride, so that I would learn to seek Him on my knees. It was the subsequent training in prayer, fasting, and all the rest that has given me the strength, and the means to access the grace, to hold on despite losing almost everything that mattered to me.
When the early Benedictines would establish a monastery in the wild, and pagan tribesmen would slaughter them and plunder the monastery, the mother house would often simply send more monks out to refound the monastic settlement. In time, this is how peasants learned that the monks could be trusted. Were those monks cucks (a word Isker doesn’t use, but I can’t imagine why not)? Did Isker’s beloved St. Boniface die in battle? Yes, in a way, but not as you might think if all you know is Isker’s take. Here is how, in the year 754, the saint perished on a mission to the Frisians:
The day before Pentecost Sunday that year, Boniface had arranged for a huge confirmation ceremony for his new converts in the open fields on the plain of Dokkum on the banks of the Borne River (in present day northern Holland). He and his companions had set up a tent and altar there to await the arrival of the neophytes for the administration of the sacrament. Boniface himself was in another tent of his own reading a book before those people arrived, when suddenly a raiding party from one of the unconverted bands of barbarians descended on the camp. Boniface told his companions calmly to trust in God and not to fear dying for the Catholic Faith. Crying out for vengeance for their false pagan gods, whose existence the missionaries were denying, the heathens killed Boniface and his companions with battle axes, spears, and clubs. Boniface, it was later learned, was the first to fall.
The holy man who cut down the pagan’s sacred tree allowed himself to be cut down for the sake of Christ. He died a martyr. The namesake of the Boniface Option died refusing to lift a finger to resist the pagans.
Does Isker think martyrs are weaklings? I don’t mean to be crass. This is not an easy question. I’ve seen the 1980s film The Mission a number of times, mostly sympathizing with the Robert De Niro fighting Jesuit. But the last two times I saw the film, I was startled by how much sympathy I had for Jeremy Irons’s Jesuit, who chose to die as a martyr. I never imagined the Irons character to be a coward, but I could not understand why he would not fight, as De Niro fought. Maybe you have to have lived through serious defeats in your own life to understand it, I dunno.
In the end, I know very well what Andrew Isker hates, but I have no idea what he loves. I know what he thinks war should be like, but I can’t figure out what peace is to him, other than the vanquishing of his enemies. I know what his idea of justice looks like, but I can’t see even the slightest hint that mercy matters to him.
I know Pastor Isker wants to see the re-establishment of Christendom … but why? What happens then? What is the goal of the Christian life? Christendom? Really?
As with some of the Catholic integralists, Isker is drawn to defeating his enemies and establishing dominion over them. But again: for what? I’ve never really been around Protestants like Isker, but I have in my distant past been around Catholics of the same combative stripe. They are almost all men, in my experience, and singularly lacking in humility and prudence. And they are the kind of people you would not want to be in charge. Their hates are quite refined, and often rightly targeted. But you get the very clear sense that their hatreds are not a shadow of their loves, and that they covet the intoxication of loathing. They seem driven by the idea that once the Righteous are on the throne, the Kingdom of God will be at hand. And they call me utopian!
What happens when all the bugmen have been exterminated, so to speak? Should Trashworld be consigned to the ash heap of history, what then? What will Iskerworld be like? What kind of peace will it impose? What happens to its dissidents, Christian and otherwise? What happens to the women? To the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the non-believers? How about to the fake, the gay, the fetid and the corpulent? Is there a place for them at all? Is all the world to become Moscow, Idaho?
Despite its occasional strengths, The Boniface Option is inescapably a work of cruelty, or at least it takes pleasure not in authentic Christian courage — which is far too little an abundance now — but rather in petty cruelty, and calls it virtue and valor. A lot of young men are going to find their way to this book and think that they’ve finally found the muscular Christianity that they’ve been missing. I might have fallen for that kind of thing back in the day. I learned through hard experience that strength is not shown through snideness. Jerkiness and jockiness are not next to godliness. It’s a lesson that young men who are good with language, and who have sharp eyes to pick out the faults of others, struggle to learn. I’m 56 years old, and I still do. It’s part of my penitence.
A Catholic friend told me recently, “There are some Catholics who, upon learning that St. Jerome was a pain in the butt, and that Evelyn Waugh was mean, have decided that it’s fine with God to cultivate those qualities in themselves.” That’s the feeling I had reading this book. Its author is a Christian, and boy is he mad as hell about it. Andrew Isker surely hates the right things, but with a love of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful that is just as fierce and compelling, what good is it?
There is no real sense in this book that Christians might lose this culture war, and might have to figure out how to live faithfully, and pass the faith on to their kids, under conditions of secularist dhimmitude. There is no meaningful reckoning with the complex cultural, technological, psychological, and yes, spiritual, forces arrayed against Christians in the West. Isker writes as if the only thing we need to do is to hate hard enough, and fight with enough ferocity, and we are bound to win. A reader named Allan Stoltzfus, in comments on the book’s Amazon page, raved about the book, saying “Christendom is going to win so hard it's not even funny.”
That’s the lesson Mr. Stoltzfus took away from it. But when I finished The Boniface Option last night, I could only imagine a future in which Douglas Wilson’s brogue is stamping on a fake, disgusting, corpulent, but all too human face, forever.
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