The Dreher-Rocha Exchange

I remember a professor once commenting on Alasdair MacIntyre’s praise of fishing villages. In an offhanded manner he said, “Of course, Alasdair would never be able to survive in one of them.” Perhaps not. But neither could I. 

But like MacIntyre, I’m tempted to write about the virtues of fishing villages. From the vantage point of outside onlooker, I can organize observations into clean praises and critiques. But I sometimes feel uneasy doing so.

I suspect that most analytical writers would struggle to live in the worlds they praise. And this might be the tricky place we find the opening paragraphs of Rod Dreher’s recent response to Sam Rocha’s critique of “The Benedict Option.” In the opening paragraphs of his response, Dreher mocks Rocha’s songwriting and other works:

“I had never heard of Rocha before this piece, but he seems to think he hath pronounced magisterially about the book, as if he were Edmund Wilson declaiming from the promontory of Partisan Review instead of an earnest and photogenic young assistant professor with a blog, a passion for warbling daiquiri-bar folk songs, and a forthcoming volume of essays he describes as ‘composed during the Obama presidency.’ In lesser times, people wrote essays, but under the blessed reign of the globalist meritocracy’s own Marcus Aurelius, they composed them..”

The subjects of Dreher’s mocking are the works by Rocha that I find particularly interesting. As someone with a penchant for writing sappy open mic music, I’m always interested when I find young Christians who share their creative works. I haven’t always shared my own work. My narcissistic struggles to resist being called a narcissist have frequently put me in the same place as many zealous young Christians: the place of beauty-exegete rather than beauty-maker (and, by extension, beauty-sharer). I’ve been working to overcome this.

Unfortunately, Dreher’s mocking approach to creativity is one of the worst things he can do to a young Christian, even if it occurs only tangentially. I do agree with Dreher’s response in other respects. In his piece, Dreher chides Rocha for holding him, a journalist, to the standards of modern academia. In this I think Dreher’s right. Rocha’s approach to critiquing Dreher’s book risks crowding out lay engagement with intellectual questions by holding them to unfair and somewhat irrelevant standards.

One difference between the academic world of Rocha and the journalistic world of Dreher is that Rocha writes for arguments, while Dreher writes for readers. Rocha’s standard is cited syllogism, while Dreher’s standard is communication. Dreher’s book is not heavily annotated. He lacks citations and footnotes and the kinds of evidence-based arguments that are expected from those who need to meet ivory castle standards. But his readers are not university presses. His readers are human beings interested not so much in academic archeology as an interesting perspective and a well-crafted story. Dreher isn’t playing the exegete; he’s being an explorer. His craft is more akin to Rocha’s music than his research, and it should be.

And this, unfortunately, is where Dreher and Rocha miss each other. Dreher’s mocking presentation of Rocha’s music is quite close to Rocha’s dismissive critique of The Benedict Option. Both are meant to be explorative works that engage the humanity of real persons. And rather than encouraging each other in this work as Christians, Rocha lambasts Dreher’s journalism for its failure to meet academic standards, while Dreher mocks Rocha’s music and photography for being… It’s actually not clear what the mocking is oriented towards. 

Whatever the subject, Dreher goes too far when he writes condescendingly of Rocha’s “warbling daiquiri-bar folk songs.” For while Rocha critiques Dreher from the vantage point of his profession, Dreher publicly mocks Rocha for creating in a medium where Dreher is only an onlooker. And not only does Dreher (ironically) come off as a pretentious ass by mocking Rocha for something he hasn’t tried himself. In doing so, he also undermines his own project.

One difficult thing about “the Benedict option” is that it involves forgoing access to many goods, opportunities, and paths available to those who engage and act in popular culture. Instead, it gathers Christians into smaller groups, pulling together spiritual and material resources to build something beautiful with what little you have.

The building is the hard part. It’s hard because you have to start small. It’s hard because it looks so insignificant compared to the achievements of your peers who went to work for the ACLU or are chasing New York artist dreams or are running for state senate. It’s hard because you build in a culture that is skeptical and sometimes hostile towards your project. But you have to create. Because that’s what Christians do.

It’s good for Dreher to respond seriously to an article by Rocha that repeatedly misses the point of Dreher’s project. But it’s counter-productive, hypocritical, and non-Christian to publicly mock another orthodox Christian’s sincere attempts at creativity while you’re writing about the need for orthodox Christians to create small but beautiful things.

Observers get the message: when you put forward your limited efforts, your fellow Christians might rip them apart. There are many aspiring writers and musicians who want to change culture through creative activity, but Dreher and Rocha cause us to hesitate.

I do think that Dreher’s mocking is more damaging, because creative works are more difficult to craft well than argumentative essays. They’re harder to sell, and they involve much more vulnerability, which makes them significantly more difficult to share. If I write a critique of “The Benedict Option,” will he respond by publicly mocking my songwriting or my attempts at fiction?

My issue isn’t that Dreher couldn’t live in his fishing village. He clearly is working to do just that in Louisiana, which he writes about with great charm. Rather, my issue is Dreher’s willingness to burn down someone else’s village because his own is being critiqued. Yes, Rocha’s piece is unfair and overblown. But as someone who wants to look up to both Dreher and Rocha in navigating today’s world, I’m disappointed.

This is not a request to “play nice.” There are times to chastise. But I’m not convinced that this is one of those times. While Dreher and Rocha could have offered charitable correctives and supplements to what might be lacking in each other’s work, Rocha condescendingly criticizes Dreher for failing to meet the standards of a genre in which his book is not, while Dreher mocks Rocha for being young, earnest, and creative. 

In a world where Christians see the destruction of so many good things, I’d like to see something more constructive. I hope that both Dreher and Rocha can identify weaknesses to help us build something stronger, not just to rip each other apart. I remain an admirer of both, but I hope for more in the future.

It’s Good Friday. Let’s remember that we’ve already been broken down. With Easter coming, let’s consider how to build something together.

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