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Rod Dreher and a Parting of Ways

Some bad news from Rod Dreher today, more personal than political. But to me it feels existential.

In all honesty this is hitting me harder than it should. Rod Dreher was an enormous influence on my own journey from atheism to Christianity. And although it might seem shallow to admit this, it was Rod’s portrait of his own life that captured my imagination as a young agnostic. Dreher’s blog made me want to be Christian. The act of being religious seemed to obtain a kind of solidity I felt was lacking in the progressive culture around me. Now in 2022,  hearing that Dreher and his long time wife are filing for divorce feels like the end of an era.

Non-christian readers might not immediately grasp the significance of divorce in this context. In the Christian religion, its orthodox variants in particular, divorce is highly proscribed. Many denominations, like Catholicism, don’t even recognize its possibility at all. Others only allow it for extreme circumstances, what Christians call the “Three As” (Adultery, Abuse, and Abandonment). Divorce occurring so late in the marriage of a publicly traditionalist Christian believer is not a good sign.

I feel horrible for Rod Dreher in this current state. And I probably should just finish this post by saying that I will pray for him. But although I do intend to pray for Rod, I also feel compelled to write a bit more for the sake of my own Catharsis.

To be frank, I don’t think I can read Dreher’s work anymore. I suppose this was a long time coming. I have had more than my fair share of intellectual problems with his perspective. His culture war analysis is stuck in 2013. He only ever had one message, which has grown increasingly shrill in its repetition. Later in his blogging career, I noticed Rod began to bury the lead of his own stories, rambling about oncoming disaster and only hand-waving at deeper intellectual analysis and solutions that might be useful to his readers. When discussion of solutions did appear they lacked rigor, specificity, or even a properly realistic style. And this isn’t to mention the large volume of Boomerish vacation-and-food-porn that at some points seemed to crowd out the substantive content. It was always hard to take seriously the news about “the impending death of Western Civilization” while sandwiched between two vacation selfies of the author duck-facing over a French dinner and posing with a soy-grin in front of a Hungarian Cathedral.

Yet, until today, I did read Dreher regularly. I found him to be an interesting sort of character even if he was a silly person. I never met the man, but I followed his story, and it felt personal. Perhaps this was just a pre-social media para-social relationship? But how could there not be? Dreher had led me to a good place in Christianity, it was hard not to be interested in where his own life’s journey was taking him.

To this end it was easy to keep reading; from Crunchy Cons to The Little Way of Ruthie Leming to The Benedict Option. I wasn’t really interested in Dreher’s intellectual world-view, more his life and the path he was walking. It seemed simple and optimistic. But where did it all lead? Something must have been wrong from the outset. Something must have been rotting from the inside such you might have never known from the very prolific and very personal literary output of the author himself.

To say an author’s personal life matters seems silly. I certainly don’t invest this way in other people who’s work I read online. But for Rod Dreher the product was more emotional than reasonable, less logos than pathos. His image as a internet figure was similarly positioned as a focal point for a kind of solidity which I wanted to emulate. A resistance against the modern world to degrade everything within it. To this end Rod’s silly demeanor was almost an asset. It didn’t matter that his book The Benedict Option lacked substance, Rod was a symbol of resistance, and a banner for the sustainability of a deeper way of life.

To say now that Rod’s banner has been taken off the field is a understatement. Given the preexisting conditions for Christian divorce and Rod’s clear statement that none of these conditions apply, what remains to be concluded is either a deep collapse in his family’s religious belief or a total failure to practice its principles in their lives. This combined with the authors very public “Traditionalism” tells a story particularly jarring for those who follow in his footsteps.

Searching Twitter for “Rod Dreher” today to find more details on the situation brought the picture into clearer focus. Nowhere were his supporters offering condolences, everywhere were his progressive enemies rejoicing in their shared schadenfreude and taking dunks over their fallen adversary. Was this surprising? Not really. The story of Christian hypocrisy is ever so easy to weave, and it’s a delicious narrative our enemies will never get tired of telling.

For myself, someone very much following the author’s life path, first to Christianity and later to public blogging, I have to take a step back. I feel personally chastised. As a Christian, it is a familiar feeling at this stage of history. We know the routine. One more fallen hero. One more element of solidity crumbling into dust as soon as it is grasped. We are asked never to put our faith in men, but certainly something more temporal than just the Holy Spirit needs to be here to guide us.

I always felt I could learn something from Rod Dreher but what is there left for him to teach me? I know what I want to learn, more than anything, is how to not end up in the same situation.

More than anything, I don’t want to be a symbol for despair among my fellow believers. I don’t want to become an example of how living authentically is futile. I don’t want to fuel for the despondency of my own society’s decline. In all honesty I would rather be forgotten. But what ultimately can I promise about the future?

Is it enough to say that my own late-start marriage and small family are doing fine? Is it enough to confess every insecurity that I have about my own future? Should I be more realistic about my own promises implicit though they are?

Perhaps I can just pray that nothing about me ultimately survives into the future save for that small piece of good that I can bring to this world. In this sense it would be nice to be forgotten. To have God obliterate everything about me that is not good, which is probably most of what I am.

But maybe this is just self-flagellation. Whatever else, from this point there is a parting of ways between myself and Dreher. I am certainly not counting the man as lost, but I don’t think he can really help me to answer any of my questions. I have to do what I can to be whatever solidity I want in this chaotic world. Rod must do likewise in his life. Perhaps, one day in the future, our intellectual paths with cross again. In the meantime there is work to be done.