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BenOp in WSJ

The Benedict Option and the questions facing religious conservatives
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Greetings from the beach. We are packing up to head home today. It’s going to rain late this afternoon, and the kids are worn out, so we’re going to beat the traffic by going home a day early. There’s a lot of catch-up Benedict Option stuff to do next week, including two or three critical pieces I want to respond to, but I’ve put all that off this week so I could enjoy my vacation.

I do want to point you to today’s Houses of Worship column in the Wall Street Journal. It’s by David Skeel, and it concerns the Benedict Option. The piece, which is behind a subscriber paywall, is unfortunately headlined “Now Isn’t The Time to Flee the Public Square.” It’s unfortunate because it doesn’t fairly reflect what Skeel wrote, and because it perpetuates the wrong idea, one I’ve worked to counter, that I mean for the Benedict Option to be a complete neo-Amish withdrawal from political and cultural engagement. This is the straw man so many Ben Op critics keep insisting on. Skeel, a Penn law professor and author of True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World, understands this, it appears, even if the headline writer does not:

Mr. Dreher says critics miss his point. He isn’t calling on Christians to check into monasteries, and nothing prevents the new Benedicts from continuing to engage in public debate. The Benedict Option, he says, does recommend a pullback from contemporary culture and politics, but not a “neo-Amish withdrawal from the world.”

It isn’t clear what effect the Benedict Option would have on American political life. Even if one envisions the Benedict Option as “strategic attentiveness” to the cultivation of virtue, rather than “strategic retreat,” as Alan Jacobs, another prominent Christian writer has advocated, the Benedict Option implies a reduced engagement in the messy business of politics. At a time when religious freedom is viewed by many as expendable, and appears in scare quotes or their equivalent in major U.S. newspapers for the first time in American history, the practical consequences of reduced engagement could be considerable.

Yet even those of us who are skeptical of the Benedict Option can acknowledge the benefits of cultivating virtue, engaging more fully in our local communities and perhaps turning off the TV more often. Given the sometimes judgmental tendencies of theologically conservative Christians during the culture wars of the recent past, traditional Christians also might do well to focus a little more on showing what Christian morality looks like, and less on how others conduct their lives.

There may even be grounds for optimism for Christians who feel increasingly estranged from American culture. Being out of touch can be clarifying. After all, many of the greatest advances for Christianity have come during periods when Christians seemed most beleaguered. From the early Roman Empire to the Great Awakenings in 18th- and 19th-century America, and to China today, Christianity has tended to flourish anew when the distinctions are clearest between Christian faith and other conceptions of what it means to be human.

That’s a fair description. As I’ve said here, I don’t have all the Benedict Option answers, and I’m really enjoying hearing from sympathizers and constructive critics (again, some of whom I will engage in this space next week). What I think all, or most of us, share a conviction that it cannot be business as usual for small-o orthodox (that is, theologically conservative) Christians, and that if we proceed as if these were normal times, we will not develop the habits, customs, institutions, and thick communal structures that enable us to withstand the corrosive power of secular modernity. Either it’s going to be the Benedict Option, or Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which as we know ultimately results in a loss of the faith.

As a Benedictine prior told me last fall when I explained the Benedict Option to him, Christians who don’t take some form of the Benedict Option simply aren’t going to make it through what’s coming.

One more note before I help Julie pack the car: if you want to understand why we need the Benedict Option, read leading church historian Robert Louis Wilken’s 2004 First Things essay “The Church As Culture”. I honestly believe that wherever you stand on the Benedict Option — and I expect to make a detailed case for it in the book I intend to write — this concept will dominate discussion among Christian conservatives about what role we should play publicly and privately in the years to come.



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