The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher, 2017, New York, Sentinel.*
Jeremiads against the corrupt culture of the surrounding world are nothing new in Christianity. The looming collapse of the social order has been forecast time and again, with a standard of accuracy that would turn meteorologists into clairvoyants. Why, then, consider the subject again? What value could there possibly be in stirring up despair and provoking jeers from those outside the faith?
For one thing, the Jeremiad has fallen out of favor, within the church as much as without. We in the West don’t see the problem. Rather than wringing our hands waiting for the apocalypse, we are often twiddling our thumbs and trying to get the most out of our comfortable lives here and now. In this sense, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is not a Jeremiad at all, but more akin to the work of another prophet: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD….‘” (Isa. 40:3).
There is a plenty in the book that weeps for the state of our culture, but Dreher focuses his criticisms and prescriptions on the Western church—namely our unwillingness to see how the ground beneath our feet has shifted. The time has come, he argues, to look around, make a strategic retreat from the familiar battlefields of the culture war, and shore up our homes, churches, and institutions against the quicksand of what he calls “liquid modernity.” We can no longer “fight the last war,” attempting to persuade non-Christians through politics and preaching to return with us to the (largely fictitious) halcyon good old days. The majority has turned against the teachings of Scripture, and we must instead build a case for the truth and goodness of Christ and His church, as well as the structures and commitment to live that out.
Dreher’s approach here is neither new nor untried, and he engages in the text with several contemporary authors (Russell Moore, Yuval Levin, James K. A. Smith, and others) sounding similar themes. He has several advantages in this space, though. As a journalist rather than a professional theologian, he has taken the time to observe culture from a more critical remove, seeing the flood rising across denominational and regional lines, and finding stories of silver linings in unlikely places. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, he has been steeped neither in the culture of hyper-spiritual gnosticism that so often has infected fundamentalists nor the individualism and over-emphasis on relevance that has often hollowed out the mainstream American evangelical worldview. As somewhat of a political “crank”, broadly conservative but standing outside of either major party, his ideas push well past political solutions to the problems he identifies. His even-handed, ecumenical tone acknowledges the divides between the various constituencies he addresses while calling attention to the divide that runs through each of them: their relative unwillingness to acknowledge the dissolution of the faith taking place under their collective noses.
Because Dreher has been talking about these themes in public (largely through his blog at The American Conservative) for many years, The Benedict Option as a book is a chance for him to clarify (and answer critics) of the Benedict Option as a concept. It is rare for a work to come to an audience who have so many settled opinions on it (see here and here for a couple of recent examples), and Dreher’s good-faith effort to make his case here has been broadly successful. In just 244 pages, Rod manages to distill a decade of blog posts, seminars, and conversations into an adroit summation that covers vast ground with earnest clarity while avoiding undue simplification.
Early in the book, he outlines the scope of the crisis facing the Western Church (leaning just as heavily on the colonization of the Christian faith with “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as on the mainstream culture’s shift on moral issues) and unpacking the Benedictine metaphor—that the imperial city is collapsing from within, and a rebuilding has to start with smaller communities. He offers a brief history of Western thought, tracing the declension from the medieval consensus (that God orders the world and everything has intrinsic significance) to our present milieu of absolute abstraction.
From there, he explores the 6th Century Rule of St. Benedict, as lived out by a group of (mostly American) monks who reopened the monastery in Benedict’s hometown of Norcia, Italy. While certainly not advocating a monastic life for all, Dreher commends the Rule’s eight practices (order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance) as a guide to the spiritual practices all Christians should recover to strengthen our churches.
Through the rest of the book, Dreher looks at the outworking of the Option in several spheres: politics, liturgy, community, education, work, sexuality, and technology. Each chapter concludes with some concrete goal for change in the contemporary church’s practices in that area. Rather than detail each of these sections, I’d commend his work as a whole.
Some of his observations and recommendations may strike readers as good common sense (such as deepening the way our lives are structured around the historic rhythms of church life or a call to support the businesses of our fellow believers). Others may be hard to swallow (as a fellow homeschooler, I am sympathetic to Rod’s call to pull our children out of both public and status-oriented private schools, but many will bristle at such a brusque suggestion). Dreher is at his finest in the two chapters on sex and technology, where the culture holds most sway within the church, often without our notice. You may react with shock, but you cannot deny the clear and dire warnings he lays out there.
Again, many (most?) who initially pick up Rod’s book have probably made up their minds about his work already. The criticisms are easy enough to predict. Why should we hide from the world we are called to reach? What about the Great Commission? Shouldn’t the power of the Gospel convince us to expect the unexpected? How can we stand in solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world if we would rather “head for the hills” than stand up for the faith? Don’t we have to stay engaged in the political sphere? Again, because of his long discussion of these ideas in public, Dreher has repeatedly interacted with these and others. His defenses come through in the book as thoughtful, reasoned responses, not combative rejections, or flippant dismissals.
From my own reading, there is one serious shortcoming: the solutions Dreher presents might be attainable enough for middle and upper class Americans, but do not translate well or practically for lower-income believers at home and abroad. A church that is serious about Benedict Option action has to come up with ways to include those who can least afford to be left outside. In doing so, we may just discover that the strengths they’ve already forged in poverty and oppression (sometimes at the hands of other Christians) are invaluable to the discipleship of our communities. Even at that, only healthy, well-formed churches are ready and willing to take those steps.
I don’t doubt that Rod has considered these implications, and even if he hasn’t, that in no way disqualifies his work. So many book reviewers are poised to strike, as though any work which fails to anticipate every possible objection is somehow a failure. Rod has thought through his subject well, and read and interviewed widely to flesh it out. No writer can say all things to all people, but in this place and this time—a Western world grasping at meaning and committing civilizational suicide (both metaphorically and literally)—Dreher has a lot to say.
As a Reformed Protestant, evangelical (i.e. “Gospel-centered”) in outlook if not in name, I feel a special burden to defend the Benedict Option to my “tribe”, who were birthed out of the very opposite impulse—to avoid cloistering the faith and open the truth of Christ as revealed in the Word of God to the entire world. I’ve gotten to know Rod a bit over the past few years, and he has earned my respect as one who is as charitable to other Christian traditions as he is committed to his own. In this book, he has done most of that defense for me.
There are some hard sayings to grapple with here, but their harshness comes less from Rod and more from the Scripture and Christian history he cites. In that sense, yes, the Benedict Option is simply a call for the church to be the church. Why that call is needed, though, is that our churches in the west are too often outposts of an atomized individual evangelicalism (where Christians are taught to relate to God in a one-on-one fashion) that is hopelessly underprepared to face any real persecution. The church that survives and thrives in a hostile world must be one that practices whole-life, whole-church discipleship. At bottom, that is the response Dreher wants from readers. In this environment, passing the faith on to the next generation will require much, much more than one more program or one more gimmick.
In his conclusion, Rod poetically reminds us all of the hope that Christ has built into His church: “The church, then, is both Ark and Wellspring—and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But He also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the water of baptism and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of His grace. You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously” (p. 238).
This is the message here. Far from advocating a sequestration of the faith from the public square, it provides a framework for conversation as churches plan for discipleship and evangelism in a world that feels less and less like home (as it should). I could even see Rod’s winsome book becoming a tool to help skeptics understand the Christian perspective on religious liberty and spiritual formation.
Whatever your take on the Benedict Option, don’t dismiss it without taking the time to read and process this book.
*Thanks to Bria Sandford at Penguin for providing me with an advance copy of the book. It released on 3/14.