The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher. New York: Sentinel, 2017.
Summary: A proposal that in the face of pervasive cultural decline that has led to political, theological, and moral compromise within the church, it is time for Christians to consider a kind of strategic withdrawal patterned on the monastic movement founded by St. Benedict.
The idea of “the Benedict Option” first came to my attention last summer when I was writing decrying the poisonous discourse, and what I felt was the lack of real choices in our presidential and some other races. A friend posted a comment pointing me to the writing of a conservative commentator, Rod Dreher, and articles he had written about “the Benedict Option,” inspired by the ideas of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Subsequently, I wrote a post asking the question, “Is it Time for the ‘Benedict Option’?” My own opinion at the time was that while Dreher raises some critically important issues to which I believe churches must address themselves, I argued for an alternative sociologist James Davision Hunter calls “faithful presence.”
Now Dreher has published a fuller version of his argument in the recently released The Benedict Option. While I stand by my earlier opinion about the proposal, I have a deeper appreciation for the concerns that motivate Dreher and the value in what he proposes. Reading this fuller statement of the outworking of his ideas raised some additional concerns both about what he proposes and what he fails to address.
First of all, critical to understanding Dreher’s proposal is his assessment of the state of our culture in America. He opens the book likening the situation to a catastrophic flood in which the most strategic option of the survival of the church is the build an ark. He cites the failure of political “culture wars,” culminating in the legalizing of gay marriage, and the morally and theologically compromised state of conservative, mainline Protestant, and Catholic churches alike, typified in what Christian Smith has called “moral therapeutic deism”. He contends that it is time for the church to consider a strategic withdrawal along the lines of St. Benedict, who found Rome after barbarian invasions both in ruins and decadent. It is important to read Dreher closely here or one will simply hear him as saying we need to “head for the hills” or all become monks. Perhaps his choice of flood imagery is unfortunate here. Many of his examples in subsequent parts of the book suggest rather Christians who are part of counter-cultural communities that form people in Christ in the midst of an increasingly and more radically secular environment.
What does Dreher draw from the example of Benedict (and modern day Benedictine communities which he visited)? Fundamentally he argues that Christians need to be in a community with a rule of life that forms character, informs behavior, and educates for orthodoxy. Such communities reflect a God-shaped order, life of prayer, work, ascetic practices, stability, hospitality, and balance.
After making the case for the need for the Benedict Option, including a history of the decline of western culture, and describing what may be drawn from the Benedictine example, Dreher discusses what this means for a number of areas of life:
- Politics. Dreher contends efforts of “values voters” to shape a national agenda around Christian values has failed. He calls for a localism that begins by re-establishing bonds of substantive community both within local congregations and in one’s local setting.
- The Church. He argues for rediscovering how Christians prayed, lived, and worshiped in the past. This includes recovering liturgical worship that involves the whole of one’s body, fasting and other ascetic practices, church discipline and witness through the arts.
- The Christian Village. Dreher thinks not only the family but also “the village” has an important impact on our lives, and particularly those of our children and strengthening our social networks within churches and between orthodox churches should be a priority.
- Education. Dreher’s concern for children comes through in many chapters, and particularly here. He argues particularly for pulling children out of public schools and for “classical Christian education.”
- Work. He argues that Christians should be prepared to lose their jobs in many fields where choices of conscience may mean being fired. Christians may need to be entrepreneurial and start their own businesses, be prepared to work in trades and do physical labor, and support one another.
- Sexuality. The church needs to recover a vibrant message about sexuality rooted in creation and incarnation that supports chasteness and marital fidelity between men and women, particularly stands with those who are single and recognizes the scourge of pornography.
- Technology. We need to recognize how we’ve allowed technology to take over our lives, through the internet, smartphones, and even reproductive technologies and that technology is not morally neutral. Dreher would withhold smartphones from teenagers.
I think the most compelling part of Dreher’s argument is that American culture is eating the church’s lunch, so to speak. At best, churches provide a thin, spiritual veneer over beliefs and behaviors that contradict church teaching and reflect secular culture rather than vibrant Christian belief and practice. The most important part of his argument is his call for learning from Benedict about the value of a communal rule of life that shapes character, belief, and practice. Dreher has a positive, supportive view of the arts and a vision for the attractive value of cultivating beauty in our communities. I affirm his concluding call that the Benedict Option be embraced out of love, not fear.
Other parts of his argument rest heavily on whether you accept his assessment of the culture, and the remedy of radical withdrawal. With politics, I think there is something to be said for a greater focus on localism and a disengagement from national political efforts. I disagree that we should do so because of “failure” but rather that the church’s “captivity” to particular political parties was never a good idea. His discussion of withdrawing from schools was particularly troublesome to me as a sweeping recommendation (I realize this may be necessary in some contexts). Christians who come together to pray for, volunteer with, support, and engage their local schools have a great impact in many cases, support Christians teaching in the schools, and can teach their children how to think critically about what they are hearing and engage appropriately.
I’m also concerned for what I do not hear. Apart from one or two statements against racism, this felt like a very “white” book. It did not seem rooted in conversations with people of color or the ethnic churches of which they are part. Education proposals that focus on classical education in the western tradition ignore the realities of ethnic minorities who bring other rich cultural and intellectual traditions with unique insights into the Christian faith into our communal life. The book appeared to me to assume an audience that is conservative and college educated. While focusing heavily and repeatedly on sexual politics, the book had little to say about solidarity with Christians across racial lines, addressing issues of income disparities (apart from some ideas of distributivism and “helping each other out”), or caring for the creation (something the Benedictines do both in living close to the land, and with their focus on poverty which takes just enough to live from the land).
Dreher’s proposal has provoked a national conversation, including reviews and discussion in major media outlets and even an op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times. It is a book that deserves the attention of church or ministry leaders who take seriously their responsibility for the formation of those in their care. It is worth a read by public educators to understand the concerns (whether warranted or not) many thoughtful religious people have about the current state of public education. I hope this book brings Dreher into a wider conversation beyond the conservative constituency for whom he typically writes, that they will engage seriously with his central contentions, and in turn, that it might lead Dreher into a greater “communion of the saints” that includes Christians of other ethnicities and political commitments.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.