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C.S. Lewis’s Benedict Option

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A few weeks ago, my fiancée and I attended, against our will, the second wedding of a relative who had callously moved in with his much younger mistress while his abandoned wife grieved over a devastating family tragedy.

As a traditionalist Christian, I was obviously not excited about this wedding, but so long as they were married by a friend or justice of the peace, I figured I would have no problem keeping my mouth shut and enjoying the party. Instead, the happy adulterous couple managed to find a spineless wolf in sheep’s clothing of an evangelical pastor to whitewash their sepulcher for them by declaring their marriage to be “God’s will.”

I was aghast. The marriage service, perhaps due to the officiant’s awareness that significant “impediments” did exist, provided no opportunity for objections, but I had several. I knew, of course, that what 21st-century secular society calls marriage bears little resemblance to the Christian form of the institution, but never before had I seen such abject cowardice and accommodation on the part of a church.

I thought immediately of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, in which I’d read that orthodox Christians have “lost the public square.” In post-Obergefell America, Dreher argues, those who would preserve Christian marriage must circle the wagons. There is no sense in continuing to wage a legal and cultural war over gay marriage when one wing of our army has defected to the enemy and the other has, through its lax attitude toward divorce, left its flank exposed.

In light of such distortions and compromises, it becomes easy to look back with nostalgia on the 1940s and ’50s, when Christianity and its idea of marriage permeated secular society far more fully and sex had not yet been severed from reproduction by the birth control pill or reduced to a mere means of self-actualization by the Sexual Revolution.

Yet even in 1943, in a radio broadcast that would later become a chapter in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis freely acknowledged the loss of the public square, especially on the subject of marriage. “A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian, you should try to make divorce very difficult for every one. I do not think that,” he said, adding, “My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.”

Dreher also acknowledges the futility of using state authority to cudgel non-believers into accepting Christian ethical standards with which they disagree. “Political power,” Dreher writes, “is not a moral disinfectant.”

Lewis and Dreher also share, despite the temporal (and perhaps exaggerated) cultural gulf that separates them, a common strategy for the preservation of Christian marriage, with Lewis anticipating the Benedict Option by over half a century.

“There ought to be,” Lewis argues, “two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members.” So far, so good. Dreher agrees and even praises a Baptist congregation that excommunicated a couple who insisted on divorcing. But although Lewis held no illusions about living in a Christian nation, he failed to foresee that the churches themselves would soon cease to be a safe harbor for Christian marriage. Lewis tells his audience that all major denominations “regard divorce as something like cutting up a living body” and that the main differences between denominations is that some (like the Roman Catholic Church in the days before its American branch handed out annulments like candy) say that “it cannot be done at all” while others “admit it as a desperate remedy in extreme cases.” He failed to foresee a world in which, even in his own Church of England, “[t]he exceptional is now routine.” Today, as the wedding my fiancée and I attended illustrates, no couple will have any trouble finding a minister to endorse the view that marriage is nothing more than what Lewis calls a “simple readjustment of partners.”

Of gay marriage, Lewis says nothing because such a concept was still largely unthinkable in his day. If half a century ago, the churches had taken his advice and maintained a more or less united front on the topic of divorce even in the teeth of liberalized family laws, we would, perhaps, never have been driven to the extremity of defending our churches, as the United Methodists were recently forced to do, against the consecration of gay marriage. Appeasement will get us nowhere. When we fail to stand fast on the beaches and the landing grounds, we will be forced to fight in the streets, at which point the enemy will have penetrated so far into our territory that we would better serve our cause by taking to the hills to regroup.

It may be tempting, especially for embattled Christians attempting to preserve their faith in a thoroughly post-Christian society, to look with rose-colored glasses on everything before the 1960s as an era of simple, universal piety. This attitude is evident in the creepy fetishization of the 1950s common in some Catholic Facebook groups. As Lewis reminds us, however, those decades were far from prelapsarian. Even in 1943, less than a decade after a firm defense of Christian marriage forced King Edward VIII from his throne and 75 years before the Archbishop of Canterbury would openly marry a royal prince to a divorcée, Lewis already perceived that Christians would soon lose control of the public sphere and would have to fortify themselves if they were to survive.

Imagine if, instead of fighting a long and futile culture war that did lasting damage to the reputation of the Church, we had instead spent the latter half of the 20th century implementing the Dreher-Lewis vision of the Benedict Option. The flood might have come sooner, but our ark would not have been nearly as leaky as it is today.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.

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