Concerning that drive-by Washington Post story about Rod Dreher and 'The Benedict Option'

If you care about issues of religious faith and public life, then you probably know that there has been a tsunami of writing in the past year (here's a current Google News search) about Rod Dreher and his bestseller "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation."

As you would expect, there has been way more argument and commentary than news coverage focusing on what Dreher is saying and why he is saying it. That's the age we live in. Opinion is cheap and quick. Information is expensive and takes time.

During this media storm, I have come up with a quick test to determine whether I think a critic or journalist has read Dreher's book: Does the review-story-essay discuss Vaclav Havel? Why is that so important? Read the book and find out. Hint: It has something to do with the mantra among some critics that Rod wants orthodox believers in ancient faiths to flee to the hills, abandoning cities, public life, core institutions and culture.

I have avoiding writing about all of this at GetReligion for a simple reason: It's hard to critique coverage of someone who has been a good friend for more than two decades. I mean, I know Rod's strengths and weaknesses and, trust me, he knows mine. We share many friends and I was one of his online associates who watched the Benedict Option material develop through the years.

So why discuss the new Washington Post Style section piece? That's the one with this rather snarky headline: "Rod Dreher is the combative, oversharing blogger who speaks for today’s beleaguered Christians." Well, I have two reasons.

First, while this article passes the Vaclav Havel test (barely), there is little evidence that reporter Karen Heller has read "The Benedict Option" or is interested in its thesis. Instead, this feature is kind of a new old New Journalism thing about her personal reaction to Dreher. There are glimpses of Rod in this piece, but they are edited and warped to fit her view of the man.

Second, you can get a look behind the curtain on this journalism process because another writer -- Frederica Mathewes-Green -- has posted reactions to how her views of Rod were handled in the Post piece. Yes, Frederica is another close friend, as in the wife of our family's priest during our years in Maryland. It was Frederica who introduced me to Rod in the mid-1990s (see her book "Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy").

It's always interesting to see the point of view from the other side of the reporter's notebook. Hold that thought.

First you need to get a taste of the article, starting with the overture:

BATON ROUGE -- Rod Dreher’s life is an open book. Several, actually. “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” about his late sister. “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” about his love of the Italian poet. His latest, “The Benedict Option,” is a call to beleaguered Christians to divorce themselves from the increasingly secular American mainstream.
But really, every work by this conservative Christian writer is a literary act of confession, a quest for purpose and a purge of disillusionment. An influential and prolific blogger for the American Conservative -- he averages 1.3 million monthly page views on his blog -- Dreher is credited with helping introduce J.D. Vance of “Hillbilly Elegy” to a larger audience. He founded the “crunchy con” ideology -- another book, back in 2006 -- wedding cultural and moral conservatism with an organic, co-op-and-Birkenstock lifestyle. ...
Each Dreher volume arrives upholstered with a subtitle -- “Benedict’s” is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation” -- but they all boil down to “Rod’s search for existential meaning and harmony.”

It's important to understand that Dreher met the Post scribe as she dashed past Baton Rouge headed to another story. In his own blog commentary on the encounter, Dreher describes some key details. The bottom line: He picked a convenient location near the Interstate and, knowing she was pressed for time, tried to cut to the chase in his remarks.

As readers can see by the word "oversharing" in the headline, this turned into the feature's central theme. Here is the passage that readers keep mentioning to me in emails when describing their reactions to this piece. This is long, but essential:

It takes all of 10 minutes for him to unload his emotional and philosophical struggles in a wannabe hipster coffee/doughnut/slider/brew house, a metaphor for the source of his existential pain and familial estrangement: He got fancy; his family did not.
We’re here because we can’t be in his home for lengthy reasons shared in emails and conversation and . . . oh, never mind.
It’s stupid loud. Coffee grinders and blaring music require Dreher to semi-yell intimate moments of extreme rejection.
“You’re so easy to talk to,” he says.
Perhaps, but you get the feeling that he might unload to almost anyone and that it’s always a half-hour before closing in the graduate school library of his mind.
Filters are for coffee and air conditioners. Dreher has none.
“He feels emotion strongly, right there on the surface,” says his good friend Frederica Mathewes-Green. “He’s almost childlike. He just doesn’t have any shame.”

So let's stop right there and hear from Mathewes-Green. This is material from the top of her post, but the whole thing will interest journalists who care about the art of interviewing complex people.

I should note that Mathewes-Green -- in addition to her many books -- has a long and interesting history in news and opinion writing herself, dating back to the trailblazing feminist newspaper off our backs to commentaries for National Public Radio. She has written many magazine profiles and is no stranger to features of this kind.

I was disappointed by how Karen Heller’s profile of Rod Dreher turned out, in today’s Washington Post. Especially I felt bad that the quotes she has from me, which make Rod sound manipulative and self-centered. That’s the opposite of how I described him. That’s so frustrating. I wrote up some notes about what I’d said immediately after our conversation, which provides a better context. 
<< She marveled that he spoke so freely about the pain he’s felt about his family. It seemed like her impression was that he shares these very personal things because he is emotionally distraught and can’t hold it in. On the contrary, I said, he is able to talk about these things because he doesn’t have the ego needs most of us do, the need to manage other people’s esteem and admiration. He can talk about personal things without feeling the embarrassment or shame we would. He is, actually, an uncomplicated person, I said, a guileless and in some ways childlike person, simple, not egocentric, and amazingly free of defensiveness and pride.
I said also that he can feel comfortable talking about personal difficulties because he has made the ultimate decisions about them. When his priest told him he had to treat his painfully rejecting father with love and servant-heartedness, Rod accepted it and went about putting it into practice. I told her that when you’re in an emotionally painful situation that you can’t resolve the way you like, just making a decision about how you’re going to respond diminishes the paint. It turns it into something you’re coping with, rather than something that keeps wringing you out. So it’s not that he talks about these things because he’s agitated, but because he has settled in his mind about them; he has decided what is the right thing to do, and is doing it, so he is able to have peace in the middle of it. ...

I guess you could say that the key is that this Post feature failed to, well, get religion, in terms of taking religious faith seriously. You see, it's impossible to understand Dreher and his story without facing how he is attempting -- Rod would want the word "attempting" in bold -- to live out his religious convictions as an Orthodox believer, as a sinner aware of his own need for repentance and healing.

That's all I have to say about that. Read the Post piece. Read Frederica's commentary.

Most of all, read the most crucial element of Dreher's story, material that you know he stressed in his interview with Heller -- yet it did not make it into the piece. It's the epilogue he wishes he could add to his book "How Dante Can Save Your Life."

I'm talking about the remarkable spiritual healing that took place in Rod's relationship with his own father, in the months leading to the family patriarch's death. Readers don't know anything about Dreher's confessions about his family's painful past -- a subject explored in the Post piece -- without knowing this information. This is life-and-death material, and I'm not just talking about this life in the here and now.

Get past the bouillabaisse story, for heaven's sake. How does a reporter ignore the crucial final act of this drama?

Read it all. Please.

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