The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
By Rod Dreher
(Sentinel, 272 pages, $25)
Pretty much everybody who reads The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher’s Rx for Christians flailed and battered by modernity, walks away with a tenacious opinion about the book — ranging from “Praise the Lord” to “What’s this guy talking about?”
I see this a high compliment to the accomplished Dreher, blogger and editor for the American Conservative magazine, who has the gift of disgorging well-reasoned sentences and paragraphs faster than many of us can articulate a Starbucks order. I should note, for what is called full-disclosure purposes, that Dreher is a friend of many years’ standing. I have my own — I trust — well-reasoned views on the book, rooted far less in friendship than in — I hope — fair-minded appreciation of the task Dreher set himself, which is that of reflecting intelligently on the role of Christians in a world increasingly skeptical of their bona fides and beliefs. I do not endorse his outlook in every particular. I am not sure anyone could. His prescription for the times is, at once, brash and idealistic. This makes the book not a whit less valuable as cultural analysis. He starts, or, rather, advances, a highly useful conversation.
First, for our purposes, what’s he up to? The book title invites perplexed speculation well before a single postulate makes the scene. The Benedict Option — idea as distinguished from book title — is Dreher’s name for the only recourse he sees as remotely suited to present purposes from a Christian standpoint. St. Benedict of Nursia (now Norsia) in Italy gathered about him in the politically chaotic 6th century a community of devout and purposeful followers of Christ. The monks kept their heads down and their praying, working hands up, riding out bad times while waiting for good — that is, godly — ones to return.
The present day, as many Christians see it, is marked by sorrow and disappointment (rarely the sin of outright despair) as secular people and secular ideals take charge of society. Dreher, borrowing from sociologists Christian Smith (a real pre-modern handle, that) and Melinda Lundquist Denton, identifies the creed of the hour as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, with life’s central goal conceived as “to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” Yes, well; we do see a lot of that. Dreher says in spite of our ease and prosperity, “we in the modern world are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it.” Thus, “The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.”
This is strong stuff, requiring, on Dreher’s showing, a powerful remedy. The remedy he proposes — already enacted here and there, according to his research and interviews — should not be confused as going to ground like a hunted fox; but it certainly could be taken that way. The Benedict Option apes the witness of St. Benedict and his monks, heroically tending the flame of the faith in tight little communities of faith. The monks of the modern world — most would not be clergy but ordinary believers — would do good works, spending more time away from the world, “in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training,” in readiness for the Lord’s restorative touch.
Dreher protests that he is not, however the matter might look, recommending withdrawal from the world. Rather, he would have practitioners of the Benedict Option draw on the monks’ example of fidelity and self-discipline. This would ideally “change the way Christians approach politics, church, family, community, education, our jobs, sexuality, and technology.”
The communities Dreher commends to modern followers of Benedict would be small and locally based — Christian villages eschewing the politics both of the secular world and the religious right. The goal of the new politics: “the restoration of inner order, harmonizing with the will of God — the same telos as life in the monastic community.” Benedict Option communities would start and sustain “authentically Christian, authentically countercultural schools,” especially of a classical sort, for recapturing interest in the virtue education ideals of bygone years. A citizen of the community would carry out the work at hand, whatever its character, “as a gift to God — as participation in His ordering of Creation. He will burn no “incense to the gods of our age.” He will separate kids from smartphones and “buy Christian, even if it costs more.” He will participate in the formation of “communities of healthy chastity and fidelity that can protect the gift and pass it on to the next generations.”
Want to join up? A number of Dreher’s readers, one may predict, will decide excitedly to give the thing a go. Always in this life we’re seeking answers. Here’s one that speaks to urgently felt needs concerning the basis of life itself, from a Christian standpoint. I offer three points for reflection.
The first is, we ought to recognize where Dreher is, so to speak, coming from. Idealistic, not to say utopian, communities are endemic in American history: the Amish, the Quakers, the Shakers, the Anabaptists, Brook Farm, New Harmony, Hopedale, the Mormons; all with unique ideas outside the mainstream of the Christian inheritance, all nevertheless living with a concentration and self-understanding that consigned them to coziness at the very least and most of the time to extinction. The buggies of the Amish, and the Mormons’ perpetual doorbell ding-dong, are the signifiers of community efforts imperfectly appreciated outside the community. These facts do not militate against the projected work of The Benedict Option, but they can be taken as flashing yellow lights. They suggest that the art of detachment from the mainstream may be more arduous than expectations warrant.
My second point: Christianity can’t currently be said to be setting the county aflame. But its ups and downs over the past two millennia suggest that framing its funeral rites is a tricky enterprise. Did not Jesus, upon the Galilee mountain, tell the disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”?
The third point is merely my supposition. I offer it anyway, on the basis of observation, study, and hope. It is that we may be living not just in a time of growing indifference to Christianity, and disregard for Christian truth, but also in possibly the most fruitful and exciting moment for Christian evangelism since the Reformation, 500 years ago. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is becoming a bore and a non-starter. The church seems to me, by contrast, less an enterprise on the run than one slowly shaking off the spiritual torpor of the 20th century and getting ready to do great things.
I do not make such points in derogation of medicines proposed in good faith for the survival and renewal of Christianity. I say, we’ll see how it all works out; as will Rod Dreher, who has given the contemporary religious problem his best shot: honest, earnest, informed, non-condescending. Gratitude is my own takeaway from the sober, always intelligent talking-to he straps on us.