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Benedict Option: ‘Purpose-Driven Premodernism’

Commentary on recent reviews
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I have to thank Samuel James for this great capsule description of the Benedict Option: “purpose-driven premodernism.” From his blog post about The Benedict Option book:

When I started reading, I expected this book to be mostly about how Christians can outsmart the Left. And while Rod does employ some of that culture war language, I was pleased to be proven wrong. The Benedict Option is not, at least in how Rod has laid it out in the book, primarily between Christians and secularists. It is between Christians and Christ. What surprised me about the book was how overwhelmingly concerned Rod is with Christian sanctification. This is not really a battle plan to be used against progressives. It’s an instruction manual in basic Christian faithfulness. What refreshed me about “The Benedict Option” was not how much of it seemed innovative and timely, but how much of it felt familiar and old.

At one point while reading, I wrote this in the margins: “Purpose-driven premodernism.” Here’s what I mean. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven-Life” was a massive bestseller when it was released more than 10 years ago. Now, regardless whether you think “The Purpose-Driven Life” was mostly good, mostly bad, or a mixed bag, one thing remains true: The PDL was a book that assumed the life of a Christian was structured around spiritual habits. Warren argued that a life with purpose was one that is built around faithful spiritual practices, not a life that merely tolerated them.

That’s precisely what Rod is getting at in the Benedict Option.

Read the whole thing.  He’s really right about that: this book is far less about how to deal with the Left, and much more about how to structure our own daily lives around the pursuit of holiness — and why it is so very important to do that in these post-Christian times. As Samuel puts it, the main difference between PDL and TBO is that the former came out in 2002, and assumes a moral and spiritual stability in American culture that is not longer there.

Writing on Huffington Post, Michael Austin was also surprised by the book. Excerpt:

A year or so ago, I heard people bandying about the phrase “The Benedict Option,” but I had no idea what it was. When out of curiosity I looked into it a bit, I was pretty strongly opposed to it. Why would followers of Christ choose to withdraw from culture, especially at a time such as this? However, what I was opposed to was a mere caricature of Rod Dreher’s actual proposal in his newly published book.

Dreher’s primary audience is theologically and politically conservative Christians. There are already many reviews of the book available online, and good summaries of what the Benedict Option includes (here and here). I won’t rehearse all of the content of the book, nor will I argue with recent reviews, some of which are better, more accurate, and more helpful than others (e.g. The Atlantic, NYT, The Washington Post, WaPo again, and Comment).

However, it does seem to me that a disproportionate amount of attention has been given to what I take to be the lesser part of the book, namely, the call for Christians to withdraw from some aspects of culture, such as public school and the seeking of change via political power. What I came away with after reading the book was a renewed sense that the Church needs to redouble its efforts to be the Church, both individually and corporately.

Yes, that’s exactly right! As Marco Sermarini said in the book, when I asked him how the rest of us could have what he and his wonderful Christian community have:

“We invented nothing. We discovered nothing. We are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten.”

Brad Littlejohn, in his thoughtful, ambivalent review, read the book in the same vein. Excerpt:

With all the buzz surrounding the book, I opened my review copy with some excitement and trepidation, but the more I kept reading, the more mystified I became what all the fuss was about. Fans and foes alike seemed to been taken in by the publishing event into thinking that something earthshaking was afoot.

But when you look at the forty-seven (or forty-three) concrete proposals that make up Dreher’s blueprint for the Benedict Option, you find instead a primer on thoughtful Christian discipleship. Dreher encourages churches to pay attention to their history, relearn liturgical rhythms, work together with other local congregations, and try to live as real communities. He encourages parents to put God at the center of their families’ lives, enforce moral norms, and think about who their kids are hanging out with. He proclaims the importance of Christian education, of Christian sexual morality, and of a Christian sense of work as vocation. In light of proposals such as these, one is forced to wonder just what is motivating the Christian intellectuals who contemptuously dismissed the book. Not only are most of these proposals simply mere Christianity, but a good number are mere common sense (for instance, “Think about your kids’ peer groups”; “don’t give your kids smartphones”; “don’t use social media in worship”; “fight pornography aggressively”). Now, to be sure, just because something is common sense does not mean it is necessarily common; in a world gone mad, stating the obvious can come across as revolutionary. But I really do think we all need to settle down and realize how ordinary and obvious most of the proposals in The Benedict Option really are.

He’s right about this. The reason I believe that Benedictine spirituality is so well-suited to our time is that it really is a meat-and-potatoes spirituality, one that is about doing ordinary things faithfully. As Leah Libresco Sargeant tells me in the book, “It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.”

She’s not being cynical, and neither am I. I embed a call to ordinary Christian discipleship within an alarmist narrative for three basic reasons.

First, I genuinely believe that conditions are alarming, and that the church needs to be shaken out of its frog-in-the-pot complacency.

Second, as Samuel James indicates in his piece, I believe that the situation is such that believing Christians have to draw back to a meaningful extent from uncritical participation in mainstream post-Christian culture, or they (we) will be assimilated.

And third, many Christians who think of themselves as countercultural actually aren’t, or at least not meaningfully so — and they need to change before it’s too late. The monastic metaphor is meant to spur that kind of thought.

More Littlejohn:

So let us ask the question that everyone is arguing about: are things really that bad? On the central issue Dreher is concerned about—the place of Christian faith in public life—I think the only realistic answer is “Yes,” more or less.

But he goes on to say that I am both too optimistic and too pessimistic. This is good:

I say “too optimistic,” since it seems to me that Dreher entirely fails to mention the three looming perils facing Western civilization that are perhaps every bit as consequential as Christianity’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” from the public square. These are:

  • the rapid collapse of faith in public institutions and truth-claims that threatens to reduce our society to a Hobbesian war of all against all, or at least to render us unable to engage in public deliberation or to take any preventative actions against crises natural or man-made.
  • The looming specter of the rapid automation of many fields of work that threatens a situation of mass unemployment and spiralling inequality for which our political and economic institutions are not adapted, and will not have time to adapt.
  • The likelihood of high-impact climate change, and the severe ecological, economic, demographic, and political disruptions that it is liable to engender if not dramatically slowed.

Of course, Dreher is not trying to write a book about everything, and he has been accused of being a Cassandra as it is. But any attempt to discern the future of our society , the perils that facing it, and the kinds of actions Christians must take in response is surely incomplete without taking these developments into account. Collectively, these three crises do threaten a civilizational reversal on par with what 5th– and 6th-century inhabitants of Western Europe experienced.

I think he’s right about all these things, by the way.  There are plenty more things I could have written about. This book is primarily about the spiritual life, and the life of faith. I could not make it about everything. I said nothing about depopulation and immigration in Europe, for example. But it’s there. So are many other things. But I had to limit the scope of the book somewhere. There’s only so much individual Christians and their local communities can do about climate collapse, job-killing automation. and widespread systemic degeneration. I focused on things that we do have more control over. Besides — and more importantly — if everything was going very well on all fronts, but the faith was still dying out, that would be a catastrophe for Christianity, and for humankind. From a Biblical point of view, Silicon Valley, with all its wealth and sophistication, could well be a kind of hell on earth.

Along these lines, more Littlejohn:

Sixth-century Christians faced a crumbling civilization, a vacuum of political power, but one in which Christianity was broadly accepted, if not always faithfully practiced. On the face of it at least, there is a rather stark discontinuity between the crisis that Dreher describes—triumphant secularism—and the historical analogue he invokes—civilizational collapse.

In my book, I follow Alasdair MacIntyre on this point. He says at the end of After Virtue that our wealth and technology conceals the extent of our decadence and vulnerability from us.  MacIntyre says plainly that there are big differences between our time and the Rome of late antiquity, but valid parallels exist. This is why we await “a new — and very different — St. Benedict” — that is, one suited to our times. Unlike the previous one, this new Benedict will have to inspire a world that has already known Christianity.

Remember, my book does not argue that civilization is going to collapse. It argues that Christianity in the West is already in collapse. The Rule of St. Benedict is not a program for civilizational survival, either in the conventional sense, or in the narrower sense that I’m talking about. It is nothing more than a program for how to run a monastery. But the monasteries became critically important to civilizational survival, in ways Benedict could not have anticipated, and in ways that may not have been at all clear to the monks of the early Middle Ages. For us, they are important in that they symbolize how a more disciplined religious life in community can provide spiritual, psychological, and social structures that can endure chaos and hardship, and hand the faith down from generation to generation, despite the times.


So which is our situation: are we Christians called to sustain communities of faithful witness within a powerful but hostile Empire for decades and centuries to come, or are we called to establish havens of order and virtue in the chaotic ruins of a collapsed civilization until we can rebuild strong cultural and political institutions?

I’m not sure why this distinction is so important. We are called to establish havens of order and virtue and faithful witness whether or not the Empire remains powerful and hostile, or it collapses. The challenges are very different in either case, but both require Christians to be far more countercultural, disciplined, and intentional than we are at the present time.

Here’s an important passage:

Dreher has precious little to say about what “exercising political power prudently” might look like, aside from a list of six very worthy suggestions he borrows from Kansas political leader Lance Kinzer on p. 87. Most of the book is dedicated to filling out a vision of what he calls, following anti-communist Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, “anti-political politics,” the kind of politics that a “powerless, despised minority” must embrace (91). This is not, Dreher is clear, “a retreat to a Christian ghetto.” Rather, he quotes Vaclav Benda that the “parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for ‘the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word’ . . . “In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them” (93-94). These lines should be proof enough that many of the most frequent criticisms of Dreher are based entirely on caricatures. Still, aside from insisting that these morally disciplined Benedict Option communities will necessarily prove a blessing to the undisciplined society around them, Dreher does very little to explore how the “anti-politics” of alternative community-building relates to the positive politics of loving our non-Christian neighbors through our actions in the town hall or the halls of Congress, or for that matter in the elite culture-making institutions that Hunter so emphasizes in To Change the World.

This question is more urgent for us than it is for anti-communist dissidents because we do not live under a closed totalitarian system—certainly not yet. Faithful Christians in positions of cultural and political influence in the West must work in an environment of growing hostility, and are even beginning to find doors closing in their faces. But most of the doors are still open, and although it may get harder and harder to push through them, Christians still have a duty to serve in these vocations—as lawmakers and lawyers, teachers and writers, police officers and governors, businessmen and philanthropists—as long as they have opportunity to do so. Dreher offers precious little guidance for them.

It is here, though, where I think Dreher and Hunter—the Benedict Option and Faithful Presence—can prove to be complementary models, rather than rival alternatives. Either on its own is insufficient. Hunter’s concept of faithful presence is naïve to the extent that it thinks that Christians can readily infiltrate positions of elite culture-making influence without losing their souls; he offers us presence, but will it be faithful? Dreher’s Benedict Option is sterile to the extent that encourages the formation of communities for the cultivation of faithful citizens who have no idea how to be present. What we need is a fleshing out of how we might put the two concepts together.

Fair enough, but I left it vague because I simply did not have the space in this book — which had a hard limit of 75,000 words (roughly 250 pages) — in which to cover any issue in depth. I talked about the importance of staying involved with politics and exercising political power prudently as a way to signal that I do not advocate dropping out of conventional politics. I say in the book that it is certainly possible for Christians to keep working on issues important to the common good. Given that so many people have complained for so long that I’m calling for political quietism, I wanted to say: No, I’m not. 

I elaborate on the point about prudently engaging politics by quoting an actual former politician, Lance Kinzer, who is deeply involved in religious liberty advocacy. Among the things he advises: religious conservatives need to be reasonable about what they can and cannot achieve in this post-Christian political environment, and choose their battles wisely. Giving a detailed program for this is simply beyond the scope of this book.

Also, I don’t know how I could have given more specific advice for how faithful Christians should be present within different institutions. Aside from the fact that conditions differ from field to field, things are changing so fast on the legal and cultural front that particular advice today could be out of date tomorrow. (True story: an academic friend told me about a left-wing colleague who refuses to use social media because she fears that anything she says today could be used against her tomorrow, given how militant student life is becoming, and how quickly the standards shift.) These are going to be pastoral situations in which the same answer will not work for everyone. But, if we have been spiritually formed, and are part of a strong community of believers, we are in a good position to know what to do in situations we will face. I have friends in the academy who are disgusted and planning to leave, and other friends who believe it’s worth staying to fight, though they’re going to have to be wise as serpents to do so. Which is the correct path to take in every case? How could I possibly know? There is no rule book. A well-formed believer, one who can count on wise counsel from his pastor and Christian friends, is in the best position to discern the right path in particular situations.

That said, a book devoted to developing detailed strategies for thinking through these questions and acting faithfully would be very useful. As I am growing accustomed to saying, let The Benedict Option be a catalyst for deeper, more detailed, and more focused books on broad themes raised in each of my relatively brief chapters. The Benedict Option is a broad sketch; I eagerly await other, better Christian thinkers filling in the details.

Anyway, it’s a good, long, thoughtful piece, Brad Littlejohn’s, and I commend it to you.




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