The Wall Street Journal explores trends in Christian community life -- sort of

For 40 years, I’ve been following trends in the Christian community movement, whether it’s been covenant communities among Catholic charismatics or inner city households populated by socially aware Protestants. During my early 20s, I lived two years in an inner-city common-purse community made up of charismatic American Baptists, so the trend truly spans all manner of doctrines and beliefs.

Which is why I was interested in a long article in the Wall Street Journal about a traditional Catholic community of families and monks in the Ozark mountains of eastern Oklahoma.

I had heard of Clear Creek but had never visited. Fortunately, the Journal’s new religion writer did. He wrote the following:

When the first few monks arrived in Hulbert, Okla., in 1999, there wasn’t much around but tough soil, a creek and an old cabin where they slept as they began to build a Benedictine monastery in the Ozark foothills.
Dozens of families from California, Texas and Kansas have since followed, drawn by the abbey’s traditional Latin Mass—conducted as it was more than 1,000 years ago—and by the desire to live in one of the few communities in the U.S. composed almost exclusively of traditional Catholics…
The 100 or so people living here are part of a burgeoning movement among traditional Christians. Feeling besieged by secular society, they are taking refuge in communities like this one, clustered around churches and monasteries, where faith forms the backbone of daily life. Similar villages—some Roman Catholic, others Orthodox or Protestant -- have sprung up in Alaska, Maryland, New York and elsewhere, drawing hundreds of families. 
As the proportion of Americans without any religious affiliation continues to grow, more Christians are considering where they can go to live out their faith more fully. It has been dubbed the “Benedict Option,” in homage to St. Benedict, who as a young man left the moral decay of ancient Rome to live in the wilderness. In Oklahoma, residents around the monastery call their home Clear Creek. …

 

The article goes on to refer to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher’s upcoming "The Benedict Option" book, then swings back into a lengthy piece on the good and bad points of setting up a communal life in the sticks. When I finished it, I was not convinced that this movement is a trend by any means, as the writer only cites one other community to make his case.

That community –- which only got two paragraphs in the story -- is a group of Orthodox Christians who live within walking distance of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska.

It’s a shame the WSJ writer didn’t visit that group, as it’s a whole different scene than what he discovered in Oklahoma.

I dropped by the cathedral (pictured with this article) back in 2015 for a Sunday service and noticed the local streets named after saints and how many of the congregants lived walking distance from the church. Located a 20-minute drive north of Anchorage, it’s nowhere near as isolated as is the Clear Creek group.

Attention editors: There are dangers to taking an upcoming book, visiting one specific community (apparently) mentioned in the book, citing another and then extrapolating a national trend from it all.

When I came out with a book on Christian community in 2009, I was looking all over the country for likeminded communities that would welcome it. What I found was slim pickings. I’d be interested in learning that a mass movement had happened in the eight intervening years, but I’ve found that experiments like Clear Creek and St. John’s Cathedral are the exception.

This is also not the first time the Clear Creek and Eagle River folks have appeared together in an article. A 2014 piece in Crisis magazine cites Dreher's work and names the same two communities and is similar to the Journal piece, albeit it's critical of the Benedict Option. If you're going to profile a movement, try not to use the same two examples that other writers have used. 

It’s too bad more of Rod’s quotes on how many of these communities are out there were not included. I’m curious too as to how these folks are different from the Amish, Bruderhof (some tmatt coverage here) and Hutterite communities that have been doing much the same thing for decades.

I’m glad the writer found one person who disagreed with the community concept, but unfortunately, she was the wrong person to cite.

Isolated religious communities are not necessarily a happy place for all of their members. Samantha Field, 29, grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church in northwestern Florida, where members were discouraged from having contact with anyone outside the congregation.
Separated from the wider world, she said, the church pastor became “spiritually abusive.” Women were treated like possessions, and gay people were demonized. 
“We didn’t call it the Benedict Option—the phrase we used was ‘doctrine of separation,’ ” said Ms. Field, who left that church while in college. “But it was the same thing. This has been done.”

A lone “fundamentalist Christian church” in red-state Florida is not the same as an intentional rural community like Clear Creek. You can't just cite an independent Protestant group in criticism of hierarchical Catholic and Orthodox groups. It's apples and oranges.

If you’re going to find a critic, latch onto Facebook groups of people who’ve lived in multi-household communities where they are geographically close to a church, have some form of income sharing or engage in a common industry. I listen in to one such group (of disenchanted Catholics who’ve been part of a group of Midwestern charismatic communities) whose members could have provided much better quotes.

I appreciated the piece and the effort taken to report it, but the article needed more.

What does the local bishop think of this group? How connected is Clear Creek to the Diocese of Tulsa? Yes, there are photos on the monastery's webpage of a visit by Cardinal Raymond Burke, but that says more about the community's isolation because Burke is not exactly in Pope Francis' good graces at the moment. If there’s anything I’ve heard from Catholics who’ve been members of such communities, it’s that they wished they hadn’t veered so far from the mainstream church but had found some way of integrating more parishes into their vision. 

Then again, the monastery has been featured recently by Our Sunday Visitor. Also by the Tulsa World. Can't get much more mainstream than that. But the Journal focused on the lay community near the monastery; a different kettle of fish. There's been a lot written about how even the best-intentioned communities sink into authoritarian tendencies. What steps is Clear Creek taking to make sure the Benedict Option doesn't go bad? 

Those are the questions people are asking and which journalists should be answering.

Photos are by the author and from clearcreekmonks.org.

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