Last night I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a panel discussion with our own Rod Dreher about his new book, The Benedict Option, hosted by Plough magazine, TAC and First Things.

It was a fascinating evening, and all four of Dreher’s co-panelists made cogent points in response to the central thesis of the book, to whit:

  • Ross Douthat takes Dreher’s jeremiad with a grain of salt because it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. On the other hand, he argued that “Dreher is right even if he is wrong” — because he’s swimming against the cultural tide, and why isn’t that always a thing worth seriously considering precisely because we don’t know where the tide is going to take us? Is our country suffering from too much asceticism? Do we have a surplus of monks and nuns? If not, then why not pay attention when someone suggests we need more of them?
  • Michael Wear agreed that all Christians should seek to deepen their knowledge and commitment to living a Jesus-centered life, but this argued for expanding rather than narrowing the scope of Christian political engagement. Christians can’t allow themselves to become another political interest group, even if they see themselves as under threat.
  • Jacqueline Rivers warned against conflating Christianity with Western culture. The West may or may not be in decline — and Christianity may or may not be in decline within the West. But globally, Christianity is growing — and what does it mean for the global Christian communion if American Christianity turns inward?
  • Finally, Randall Gauger spoke out of his experience of joining and living communally within the Bruderhof community. In effect, he said to Dreher: you say you were inspired by our example, but if that is true then you should follow our example and do as we have done. You should not imagine that there is some other message peculiar to our time besides Jesus’s own message which is relevant in all times and all places.

I’m not a Christian, so I came at the debate from the perspective of an outsider. But nonetheless, the most interesting question to me remains what the Benedict Option would do to Christianity — and I don’t think so much in terms of walls as gates.

The thing about intentional communities is that you have to earn your way in, and you can also be driven out. To become a monk, you have to take vows; to stay a member of the monastic community, you have to keep them (or that’s the way it’s supposed to work). The requirements for membership are much more stringent than they have usually been for membership in the Christian fellowship generally.

Which is entirely fine: every Christian community isn’t supposed to be a monastery, nor is every Christian supposed to be a monk. And even if the Bruderhof, for example, do believe that every Christian ought to follow their example, they recognize the Christians who are not doing so as fellow Christians — just Christians who aren’t following Jesus as fully as they ought.

But I’m curious about how this works within Dreher’s framework. Specifically, I’m curious, if mainstream Christian denominations put more emphasis on building and supporting intentional communities of various kinds (and if Dreher isn’t calling for that then I really don’t know what he’s calling for), how does that change the nature of the larger communion?

Dreher has frequently and sometimes testily responded to critics by saying he’s not calling for anybody to head for the hills. But that’s not what I’m asking about. The Lubavitch hasidim are as “in the world” as any strictly observant Jewish group I can think of. They send shlichim to the four corners of the earth to minister to Jews wherever they may be. They are all about outreach, and they try in a host of ways to meet the people they are reaching out to where they are. And they are certainly making sure that they have something to give the world before they give it — they are ferocious about deeply educating their kids, and traditional Judaism is all about imbuing every single action of every day with the sacred. If you wanted to point to a Benedict Option-like group that had unquestionably not withdrawn into itself and fled for the hills, they’d be a perfect candidate.

But they are also a group apart within a people apart, and they believe themselves to be precisely that. And I can assure you, that has a real impact on how other Jews perceive them and relate to them. I’m curious to know whether that is a dynamic the Benedict Option would inculcate within Christianity, and whether Dreher thinks that would be a problem if it did.

If you want to hear the panel discussion, you can do so here.