A few notes from the most recent commentary on The Benedict Option. Don’t worry, brethren and sistren, if this is boring you, it’ll be going away soon. I can’t possibly respond to everything written about the book, nor should I, but I do want to remark on a few things that caught my eye.
First I’d like to thank my friend Alan Jacobs for his thoughtful critique in First Things. Excerpts:
Therefore, to argue, as many have, that the argument Rod Dreher makes in The Benedict Option is despairing, and hopeless, and a failure to trust in the Lord Jesus, is a category error. It takes a set of sociological and historical judgments and treats them as though they were metaphysical assertions. Anyone in Roman Cappadocia who had said that the culture Basil and his colleagues had built was not bound to last until the Lord returns would not have been deficient in Christian hope. Rather, he or she would have been offering a useful reminder of the vagaries of history, to which even the most faithful Christians are subject. Dreher’s argument in The Benedict Option may be wrong, but if so, it is wrong historically and prudentially, not metaphysically.
So the whole debate over The Benedict Option needs to be brought down out of the absolutist clouds and grounded in more historical particularities. However, and alas, this is something that neither Dreher nor his opponents seem inclined to do. Almost every party to this dispute seems to be painting with the broadest brushes they can get their hands on. Thus Dreher: “It is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system.” All of them? Without exception? No room for familial discernment and prudential judgment? And from the other side, here’s the verdict of one of Dreher’s more thoughtful critics, Elizabeth Bruenig: “Building communities of virtue is fine, but withdrawing from conventional politics is difficult to parse with Christ’s command that we love our neighbors.” We can’t love our neighbor without voting? The hospice-care worker who is too busy and tired to get to the polling place is deficient in charity? Such an argument would seem to delegitimate most monastic ways of life, which makes it an odd position for a Catholic of some traditionalist sympathies, like Bruenig, to make.
This is really helpful. Alan has put his finger on what I probably regret most of all in the book, in the sense that I would phrase it more carefully if I had it to do over again: the line about public schools. I know that it is simply not possible for very many good people to do anything other than send their kids to public school. And speaking for myself, there are some places in which I would choose a public school over a private school. It is not fair to generalize, and I did generalize, and am sorry about that. It really is a matter of prudential judgment. If it were left up to me and me alone to homeschool, I would have my kids in a public school in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. I don’t have that gift, and even if I did, it’s easy to imagine a situation in which my family could not afford it. So, I retract that harsh statement.
The sociologist James Davison Hunter has rightly said that Christians in general should strive for “faithful presence” in the public world, and there are, sad to say, multiple ways to fail at this task. One can spend so much time focusing on one’s faithfulness that one forgets to be present, or be sufficiently content with mere presence that one forgets the challenge of genuine faithfulness. It is also possible to conceive of “presence” too narrowly: again, I would contend that the hermit who prays ceaselessly for peace and justice is present in the world to an extent that few of the rest of us will ever achieve. But that said, and all my other caveats registered, I suspect that if American Christians have a general inclination, it is towards thinking that presence itself is sufficient, which causes us to neglect the difficult disciplines of genuine Christian faithfulness. This is certainly what the work of Christian Smith and his sociological colleagues—on which Dreher relies heavily—suggests.
And that is reason enough to applaud Dreher’s presentation of the Benedict Option, because his portraits of intentional communities of disciplined Christian faith, thought, and practice provide a useful mirror in which the rest of us can better discern the lineaments of our own lives. A similar challenge comes to us through Charles Marsh’s 2005 book The Beloved Community, which presents equally intentional and equally Christian communities, though ones motivated largely by the desperate need in this country for racial reconciliation. To look at such bold endeavors in communal focus, purpose, and integrity is to risk being shamed by their witness.
If we are willing to take that risk, we might learn a few things, not all of them consoling, about ourselves and our practices of faith. And our own daily habits are where the rubber meets the road, not in abstractions about liberal subjects and the decline of the West.
This is really good, and I hope you’ll read the entire essay. I’m happy to tell you that the book itself is much more focused on everyday practices and disposition than you might think.
Here’s a link to a big Colson Center symposium on the Ben Op, featuring some big names in Evangelicalism. I can’t respond to all of them, but I wanted to speak to a few things mentioned in it.
Greg Forster writes:
Darrow Miller of Disciple Nations Alliance is right: “If the church does not disciple the nations, the nations will disciple the church.” God’s people are distinct from the world, but they must practice their discipleship in the daily lives that they live within their nations—or else not at all. God has made us social creatures, and we are formed as people and as Christians by our inescapable membership in our nations.
This is why we must overcome the dangerous illusion expressed in Dreher’s call to cease “full participation in mainstream society.” The illusion is not that such a withdrawal is desirable. The illusion is that such a withdrawal is even possible. To be human is to be part of a nation, and when believers try to withdraw into “Christian villages” they only reproduce in miniature the dysfunctions of their nations—because that is who they are. Transformation is needed, but withdrawal does not transform. Instead, as we saw at Pentecost, by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, the gospel is now to be expressed within the daily life of all the world’s nations. We must rely on the Holy Spirit to make us disciples in our daily lives as Americans—for we have no other lives to live.
I wonder if people who write things like this actually read my book. Anybody who did would know perfectly well that I call for partial withdrawal for the sake of being able to bring the light of Christ fully to the world when we do engage. I don’t know how many times I have to say it. But look, if the strategy that we have been undertaking is working so well, how come the overwhelming number of Christian kids don’t know their faith? How come the Church looks so much like the world? How come so many Christian teenagers captured by pornography addiction?
Why do so many Christian leaders have trouble recognizing that what they’re doing is not working? It has been 12 years since Al Mohler wrote this terrific column about Christian Smith’s then-new study about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In the much-discussed column, he wrote:
All this means is that teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned from their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which all are accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shape this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life.
This research project demands the attention of every thinking Christian. Those who are prone to dismiss sociological analysis as irrelevant will miss the point. We must now look at the United States of America as missiologists once viewed nations that had never heard the gospel. Indeed, our missiological challenge may be even greater than the confrontation with paganism, for we face a succession of generations who have transformed Christianity into something that bears no resemblance to the faith revealed in the Bible. The faith “once delivered to the saints” is no longer even known, not only by American teenagers, but by most of their parents. Millions of Americans believe they are Christians, simply because they have some historic tie to a Christian denomination or identity.
We now face the challenge of evangelizing a nation that largely considers itself Christian, overwhelmingly believes in some deity, considers itself fervently religious, but has virtually no connection to historic Christianity. Christian Smith and his colleagues have performed an enormous service for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in identifying Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the dominant religion of this American age. Our responsibility is to prepare the church to respond to this new religion, understanding that it represents the greatest competitor to biblical Christianity. More urgently, this study should warn us all that our failure to teach this generation of teenagers the realities and convictions of biblical Christianity will mean that their children will know even less and will be even more readily seduced by this new form of paganism. This study offers irrefutable evidence of the challenge we now face.
Things have only gotten worse for all churches since then. We might be producing churchgoers and youth-group members, but we are not producing disciples.
In the symposium, my friend Peter Leithart writes:
My question is, for what tale is the BenOp the moral?
Some church fathers feared the end of Rome was the end of the world. Augustine saw Rome as an episode in the bigger story of the civitas Dei, which, Augustine believed, would flourish in her pilgrimage, empire or no empire. I suspect St. Benedict agreed.
Rod knows this. He believes in creation, cross, and eschaton. Yet, though his book gestures toward this biblical story, the BenOp is the moral to a story of Western decline. Despite Rod’s cautions, it tends to treat the church as a helpmeet of American renewal. It’s an agenda to “save the West.”
The Benedict Option aims to escape the imperial project. I worry that Rod is still in thrall to the imperial narrative.
I disagree. As I write in the book:
We are not trying to repeal seven hundred years of history, as if that were possible. Nor are we trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity. We are not looking to create heaven on earth; we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing. The Rule, with its vision of an ordered life centered around Christ and the practices it prescribes to deepen our conversion, can help us achieve that goal.
Though I don’t welcome its fall, I don’t think the Empire can be saved. My book is about the need for Christians to stop considering Christianity as co-extensive with the American (and Western) social and political order. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre suggests in the quote that forms one of the pillars of the book. The basic premise of the Benedict Option idea is that St. Benedict did not set out to Save Western Civilization™, but only to be faithful to Christ in a very difficult and chaotic time. But over the next few centuries, his successors did precisely that, as a secondary effect of evangelizing and civilizing barbarian Europe. If we are to be new — and very different — St. Benedicts, we have to first seek to follow Christ in our lives, in concrete and enduring ways. Maybe the Western order will be saved. Maybe a new Christian order will grow out of it. Or maybe this will be the end for us, and the Church will continue to flourish in parts of the world where the Holy Spirit is welcome. That’s beyond our ability to control. We have to get about the business of figuring out ways to be more faithful right here, right now. What we’ve been doing isn’t working.
(And by the way, when I talk in the book about the value of Western civilization and the need to preserve memory of it, I’m talking about the best that has been said, written, drawn, sculpted, spoken, and composed within the vast Western tradition, which, note well, precedes the advent of Christianity. None of that is the Gospel, granted, but it’s not butterbeans either. I’m sure Peter agrees, but I want to make that clear. Christianity has been articulated in cultural forms for nearly two millennia. It is important to remember that, and to remember them.)
In the symposium, Gerald McDermott writes that he and his wife used to live in a intentional Christian communities, but found them to be too confining. I suspect I would feel exactly the same way! The Benedict Option does not prescribe them for all Christians (and neither does the intentional community movement called the Bruderhof, as I learned this weekend). McDermott adds:
But with all of those qualifications, I think the Benedict Option is something Christians need to consider. If the communal lifestyle is not for all believers, it is surely imperative for us to strengthen the Christian family and church community life. My wife and I have found it immeasurably rewarding to participate in daily liturgy (morning and evening prayer using the Daily Office) and the sacraments, weekly at a minimum and daily if possible.
I think starting a book group across denominational lines, and studying a Christian classic, is ideal. Get back to the Fathers. Read Augustine or Athanasius or Gregory together. This is a sure remedy to the shallowness and heresy of too much of today’s Church.
Yes! Terrific. And my pal Karen Swallow Prior nails it:
“The Benedict Option’s” vision is not to make nuns and monks of modern Christians. Nor does it propose a bunker (whether literal or figurative) from which to establish merely an updated version of the fundamentalist separatism of yore. Nor is the turn to Benedict a quixotic attempt to recapture a romanticized past.
To the contrary, “The Benedict Option” calls Christians wherever they live and work to “form a vibrant counterculture” by cultivating practices and communities that reflect the understanding that Christians, who are not citizens of this world, need not “prop up the current order.” While the monastery that birthed the Benedict Rule was literal, the monastery invoked in “The Benedict Option” is metaphorical. It is not a place, but a way.
That’s very well said: “not a place, but a way.”
John Mark Reynolds, another friend of mine, has a powerful statement in the symposium:
The Benedict Option is not a way, but the only way forward for Christians who wish to be more than nominal in their faith. Christianity does not say that Jesus is Lord of part of human life, but of all of human life. We cannot give our entertainment, our work life, or our social lives to secular Caesars and expect to handle the holy things of the church.
Critics of the Benedict Option do not grasp that an alternative city can be Constantinople and not just a monastery or a village. Christians can live quiet lives, but also build an alternative to a Rome intent on barbarian rule. If Rome is unlivable for Christians, then we will make political allies where we can and build a new and better Rome.
Once, the strategy of a Constantine with a Benedict option saved Roman and Greek civilization for 1000 years, so now perhaps a Constantine strategy with a Benedict Option can do the same for American culture. If we cannot defend the old order, or if the decadent elite no longer wants us, then we can empower something new.
Let’s see how it goes. Leave us alone and the cross will triumph. This will not be by might, military power, but because of the Spirit of God. We are not withdrawing, we are rebuilding. Education, for example, can be offered that is high quality, does not require high debt, and is integrated into the family, church, and community.
In the book, I talk a bit about The Saint Constantine School , an innovative classical Christian educational institution John Mark has helped found in Houston. It is a model for all of us going forward.
Roberto Rivera — seems like I’m friends with a good number of the people in this symposium — offers a critical perspective, slighting the book because “there is virtually no acknowledgement that American Christianity is more than—I grow weary of being ‘that guy’ who points this out—what White Christians are doing.” More:
This isn’t “identity politics” or, even worse, “political correctness.” As Ed Stetzer and Leith Anderson wrote at Christianity Today, African-Americans are substantially more likely (60 percent) to hold Evangelical beliefs than non-Hispanic whites, and Hispanics are as likely, if not a little more, to hold such beliefs as their non-Hispanic white counterparts.
Add the impact of immigration, Hispanic and otherwise, on American Catholicism, and the absence of “non-white” American Christians from Dreher’s narrative becomes a kind of dog that didn’t bark in the night.
Well, my book is sweeping in scope. I didn’t even get down to examining the nitty-gritty of various strands of American Christianity, in terms of fidelity to Biblical and historic Christian orthodoxy. My Evangelical friend Anne Snyder told me last week in Washington that living in Houston these past few years has revealed to her a world of strong religious engagement within immigrant churches. That’s great news! I told her I hope she (or someone else) writes about it in a Benedict Option vein, e.g., what those churches have to teach the broader American church.
I wonder, though, how the practices of Latino and African-American Christians as a whole differ from their stated beliefs. I’m recalling a conversation with a black Christian friend last year. She told me she was raised in a very strict Pentecostalist sect of the black church, and that in her family, they all professed belief in a strongly conservative Christianity. But none of them lived by it. Similarly, last week I talked to a middle-aged black man here in Baton Rouge who had fallen away from the church. He told me that he was raised in the black church, and left in disgust at the hypocrisy all around him. They said one thing, but did another, he said. He was still angry about it. My point simply is that it’s not enough to rely on what people say they believe, but we also have to see fruits of that belief in discipleship.
Finally, a bit from friend John Stonestreet’s comments:
The most important contribution of the Benedict Option is clearly articulating the powerful ability of culture to shape our hearts and minds. Too many of us are like the fish who don’t know they are wet. And so, Rod rightly says, we need “thick ties” to our fellow Christians and institutions, and especially to our churches.
This seemingly obvious point is, in my view, Dreher’s other very important contribution. If Christians are truly to be the church in this cultural moment, churches must become institutions that shape both who and whose we are. Pastors, parents, mentors, and educators must see education and discipleship as more than instructive. They must commit to establishing identity and loyalty.
I thank John for putting together this symposium — read everybody’s remarks here — and thank the contributors.
I really loved Gerald Russello’s extremely generous evaluation of the book in Intercollegiate Review. Excerpts:
This is our cultural moment, despite who occupies the White House or Congress, and with his unerring cultural radar, Dreher has written the book for this new moment: a central point in The Benedict Option is “put not your trust in princes.” Culture is more important than politics, and the currents of modernity did not change on Election Day. And one thing conservatives, and especially Christian conservatives, should understand is that they have lost the culture war, and, indeed, it was their obsession with politics—and their assumption that the culture and major institutions such as big business would always support them—that partially caused that loss.
The Benedict Option is depressing and exhilarating by turns, sometimes on the same page. Depressing because Dreher shows how far we have fallen and how much work there is to be done, made more so because the cultural issues he describes are at times very personal, which affect every family in America. As a father in a post-Christian world, the stress and real presence of spiritual danger can be almost overwhelming. But the book also proves exhilarating because Dreher reminds us of the great history of Christianity in sparking renewal, and shows us how it is being done, today, now, in our own communities if we have but eyes to see. Hope, in the end, remains our most important cultural inheritance. In the catacombs of ancient Rome, in the Soviet-era Eastern Bloc, and in places like China today, the Church has modeled a society that is a witness to a different kind of polity. It is that moment again.
Read the whole thing — it’s one of the very best things I’ve seen yet on the Benedict Option. And so is this wonderful piece on the Evangelical college ministry website Campus Parade. Excerpts:
Of course, the success of the Benedict Option is also due to its timing. Though Rod alluded to the Benedict Option ten years ago in his book Crunchy Cons, I don’t know if most Christians would have been ready. Anyone who read Lesslie Newbingin 40 years ago, or Missional Church almost 20 years go will know the diagnosis of the decline of Christianity in the United States, but during these ten years since Rod mentioned the need for a new Benedict, so much has happened. The Millennial generation has shifted to the left on social norms and politics, marginal issues like same-sex marriage and transgender rights have become new norms, businesses have become arbiters of family values, sports is a tool for cultural enforcement, and what was once considered out-of-control political correctness on our campuses is now ubiquitous. I don’t need an academic to explain it to me, I see it everyday.
But there are other forces at work too. Technology like the internet and cell phones have brought us amazing amounts of information, but the ability to literally spend our whole lives on pointless trivia. The “authentic self” that philosopher Charles Taylor wrote of in his masterpiece The Secular Age, reached its apogee in Caitlyn and Bruce Jenner. Bruce Jenner, a Cold War hero to us in Generation X, became a cause celeb to Generation Z as Caitlyn Jenner. Transpose that Wheaties picture of Bruce in 1976, winner of the Olympic decathlon and “world’s greatest athlete” with Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair, and you see trajectory of where we are headed as a nation.
As Christians we did not want to believe the academics. Developing as a nation under the canopy of our country as a “city on a hill” from John Winthrop’s sermon A Model of Christian Charity, we always told ourselves we could “go back” to ideal times. Revivals did help, and many truly believed that with the right focus on the right segments of society, we could still transform the culture. But we finally find ourselves “strangers in a strange land” to steal a line from Robert Heinlein.
[The Benedict Option] is the challenge of taking personal counter-cultural steps in our lives to form Christian communities that will be receptacles and transmitters of civilization and Christianity to a dark age all around us. It is something we must prepare for the long-term. There will be no quick fixes and early time lines. As Rod says in his book “the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with.”
With chapters dealing with politics, church life, Christian communities, education, work, sexuality, and technology, Dreher sketches broad outlines of what needs to happen in each of these areas to preserve some vestige of Christian normalcy. These outlines help us see how we need to find new ways of evangelism that highlight beauty and authenticity of life; show the goodness of God in understanding a biblical version of marriage, sex, and family; bind ourselves together in deeper relationships; value the life of the mind through Christian education; see work as a Christian calling; know the limits of technology and attempt to find space to enjoy nature, solitude, and contemplation; and open our hearts to God through new liturgies of prayer, fasting, and repentance. How these sketches are colored in is up to each individual, family, church, and community.
But they are provocative sketches. They make us think of what could be if we take action, and what we lose if we fail to act. They make us want to talk with someone about their “rightness” and see where the discussion could lead. I hope you will get a copy of The Benedict Option, read it, pass it on to a friend, family or church member, and talk about it. Debate it. Color in the details of those sketches. Then get out your tools and start building an ark.
I’m going to stop here, even though I have four more pieces I’d like to comment on open on my browser. I’ll get to them tomorrow. Let me say that even if people dislike or hate these ideas, I am thrilled that the church is talking about them. I don’t have all the right answers, but in The Benedict Option, I hope I am asking the right questions. If the answers are going to be found, we Christians are going to have to find them together.