Cultural Shift: The Importance of Networks

And the possibility of forming networks of BenOp Communities

· Benedict Option,Cultural Change,The Built Environment


Today I wanted to discuss the importance of networks for cultural change, the rise of BenOp communities around the country, and the possibility of such communities potentially working together in some way to effect cultural change.

I wanted to kick the conversation off by citing an excerpt from my book, Building the Benedict Option:

The Importance of Networks

For hundreds of years, many people held that change was brought about primarily by special men and women. This was a view of history popularized by the 19th century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. As Carlyle put it, “In all epochs of the world’s history, we shall find the great man to have been the indispensable savior of his epoch.” Among these great men, Carlyle included figures such as: Moses, Mohammed, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Plato, Aristotle, da Vinci, and Michelangelo. As sociologist James Davison Hunter points out in his book To Change the World:

For Carlyle, heroes shaped history through the vision of their leadership, the power of their intellect, the beauty and delight of their aesthetic, and, animating it all, a certain inspiration from above. When the world’s need is most acute, great leaders rise to the occasion and provide the courage and vision to address that need.

The only problem is that this perspective is wrong. A professor at the University of Virginia, Hunter has spent considerable time researching how societies change. And what he has found is that the key actor in history is not individual genius, but rather networks and the new institutions that are created out of such networks. While Hunter does concede that there often exists one person in a network who provides crucial leadership, it is the network of relationships within which this person functions that is crucial for true societal change.[1]

A clear example of the integral role such networks play in societal change can be found in the British Abolition movement of the early 19th century. William Wilberforce was the British Parliamentarian most noted for spearheading the movement. But crucial to Wilberforce’s success, was what has come to be known as the Clapham Circle. This was a network of friends and associates consisting of over two dozen leaders from the highest echelons of business, church, literary life, government, and politics who were united in their opposition to the slave trade. As Hunter points out:

[I]n and through this network, they created numerous voluntary organizations, established strategic alliances, and made maximum use of the public media of the day-sermons, lectures, pamphlets, and newspapers.

And such networks don’t have to be that large to effect genuine change in a culture. According to Boleslaw Szymanski of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a committed minority of just under 10%, can convert almost everyone to its way of thinking and cause the broader society to change its collective mind.[2] So, while remarkable individuals are important for societal change, even more important are networks of people unified by common goals and values, and the institutions they build.

This dynamic was an important part of the growth and eventual triumph of Christianity. The rise of large churches in key cities such as Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, as well as the catechetical schools they founded, created the intellectual conditions for developing new leaders for the church who were conversant in pagan culture. The relationships these leaders developed with one another then helped to influence the broader culture while advancing the interests of the Christian movement.

Another example of this dynamic at work, one that is more relevant to our purposes, is the Irish Monastic movement itself. As Richard Fletcher points out:

The 6th century saw the foundation of a number of communities which were to achieve great renown in the history of Irish spirituality and learning-Bangor, Clonard, Clonfert, Conmacnois, Durrow, Kildare, Monasterboice, to name but a few. A feature of special significance for us is the appearance of monastic confederations spread over a wide area, chains of houses which owed their existence to a single founder and followed the rule drawn up by him.[3]

These networks of monasteries working together were able to have a greater influence over a broader area than individual monasteries could ever have had. Therefore, they were crucial for the initial Christianization of Ireland, and the eventual re-evangelization of Western Europe.

(End of Excerpt)

Increasingly I'm hearing news of intentional Christian communities forming both in the states and around the world. They appear to be part of a movement on the part of conservative Christians towards some sort of Benedict Option as encouraged by Rod Dreher in his book, The Benedict Option. Although, admittedly, I'm not sure how many of them would identify explicitly with the moniker. Such communities are cropping up in places like: Hyattsville, Maryland; Irving, Texas; Moscow, Idaho; Steubenville, Ohio; Northern Italy; and France. Most recently, the guys from New Founding, Nate Fischer and Joshua Abbatoy, have announced that they want to build a town in the Southern Kentucky (just north of Nashville):

If these communities could network, learn from one another, and engage in broad collaborative efforts, I wonder what type of cultural impact they might have over time?The idea is certainly intriguing, however implausible it may seem at the moment.

What do you think?

What about the idea of holding a symposium that brings togther representatives from these various communities to learn from each other, discuss best practices, and perhaps inspire others to build such communities?

Are you a member of one of the communities I've mentioned? If so, tell us a little about your community-and shoot me a line. I'd like to connect:


Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.




[1] Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World, p. 38.

[2] Szymanski, Boleslaw. "Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities.", Physical Review E (online edition of Journal) July 22, 2011.

[3] Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, p. 92.