The “benedict option” has been an influential idea in certain sectors of Christian culture for a while now, even before Rod Dreher made it into a book. So, despite my interest in how Christianity relates to the broader world and culture, it’s a little surprising that I only now got around to it.
For those unfamiliar, the basic concept behind The Benedict Option is that America culture is becoming less Christian. Additionally, some Christian beliefs, especially regarding marriage and sexuality, are becoming especially unpopular. The question for Dreher is this: How do we respond to this trend? How can Christians be faithful to Christ in an increasingly post-Christian country?
Dreher does not give a prescription for “getting back” to the old days when Christianity dominated the culture or the political landscape. He sees the election of Donald Trump, while possibly staying the tide of more formal animosity, as ultimately a symptom of bigger cultural problems. His answers are not political, at least not in the American political sense.
Instead, Dreher’s emphasis is on forming thick communities of faith which will be able to withstand the strong winds of secular culture. This means that the church will need to get back to a more faithful version of itself, to escape the hold of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and be the church.
Dreher begins with a history lesson: Where are we and how did we get here? He paints a bleak picture of a culture increasingly post-Christian and a church increasingly influenced by secularism. The time to act is now, if we can have eyes to see and the will to act.
He then moves onto the solution, starting with the St. Benedict. Benedict is the hero of this story because, as civilization was crumbling around him, he formed a community of monks who continued both the preservation of the faith and the fruits of Western civilization. The monks, and monastic life, are featured prominently in this book. Our homes, Dreher says, can become miniature monasteries with all the practices therein: order, prayer, work, and asceticism, hospitality, and balance. The rest of the book is an expansion on this theme.
Three chapters stood out to me: “Education and Christian Formation”, “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture”, and “Man and the Machine.” Each chapter, for a certain audience, is bound to be provocative.
In “Education and Christian Formation” he argues Christians should enroll their kids in Christian schools, specifically Classical Christian Schools, or to homeschool their kids while participating with some kind of Classical Christian school partnership. He arrives at this conclusion, first, because he sees education as central to Christian formation and central to the formation of the communities he envisions. He looks to minority religious Jews in this regard. Second, he notes that right after parents, peers are the most influential group in a young person’s life. Add onto that the fact that many American schools are overtly secular and Dreher arrives at the following provocative conclusion: “The rationale [that we have to keep our kids in public schools to be a witness] begins to sound like a rationalization. It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child” (157). So, why Classical Christian schools? Classical education approaches education from a different perspective. It focuses not on just adding a Bible class, but on integrating all disciplines of education under Christ himself (plus it has an emphasis on Western civilization, which Dreher is a fan of).
In “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture” Dreher talks about how Christian communities can respond to the sexual revolution. First, he says we shouldn’t compromise just to try to “keep” the younger generation in church. Those who are accepting the secular view of sex aren’t becoming part of liberal churches, they are leaving church altogether. Second, we need to affirm a positive and wholistic view of sexuality. Third, we need to support unmarried people. Fourth, we need to fight pornography with everything we have.
Finally, “Man and the Machine” addresses the Christian community’s response to technology. Dreher, of course, notes the negative uses of technology – such as rampant pornography among younger and younger teenagers. But he goes further and addresses the technological mindset, the mindset that judges everything by whether we can do something rather than whether we should do it. To that end he argues that technology is not morally neutral, but has the power to reinforce a scattered and impulsive life. How should we respond: Go on regular digital fasts, work with your hands, take the smartphones away from your kids.
Dreher concludes with two images of floods. In one, Christian communities are little arks, weathering the storm of a crumbling culture. In the other, the flood waters are redemptive, sweeping away the old so that when the waters recede new life can spring up. He concludes with this more positive image of the church, retaining its life and saltiness so that it can once again bring life to the world.
Agree or disagree with some of Dreher’s points above, his book is worth a read and his arguments are worth considering. I agree that one of our primary strategies during this time is the formation of Christian communities, to refocus our attention and energies on faithfully being the church. I’m not sure I share as bleak a picture of the world as Dreher, but time will yet tell who is right.
I also think this book is worth balancing with another book which covers a similar set of topics: This is our Time by Trevin Wax. The thesis of Wax’s book is that we should get to know our cultures deepest desires and then show how those desires are fulfilled only in Christ. Take technology: We’re drawn to social media because we want to be known and liked. But social media only disappoints. We show ourselves, but only versions of ourselves. We are liked, but only superficially. But God knows us fully and loves us fully. Our desires – given expression in our use of technology – are only fulfilled in Christ. Wax, then, sees the same sorts of problems that Dreher does, though his book offers a more outward focused way of dealing with them.
That’s not to say these two books are mutually exclusive. Both have important things to say. There is a worthwhile balancing effect. Also, The Benedict Option is not insular. He does give a nod to the importance of hospitality and of welcoming others into the community. His emphasis, though, is primarily on preservation.
All in all, this is an important book. I hope you’ll read it and consider its arguments.
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel