If you’re sick of all the Benedict Option material on this blog, well, I’m sorry. You’re just going to have to hold your nose for the next two or three weeks. The book will be out on March 14, and already the reaction is starting to come in. I’m not going to be able to answer every critic of the Benedict Option, nor will I be able to answer critics as completely as I might like. But at this point, 11 days from publication, I have a little breathing room to answer a few, at least in part. Let me start by thanking everyone who read my book and wrote something about it, however critical. I appreciate it sincerely.
Note well that I’m not going to respond to positive things these critics may have said about the book, only the negative things.
I’ll start today with Evangelical writer Katelyn Beaty’s take in the Washington Post. Excerpt:
On the national level, at least, the political engagement Dreher advocates for extends primarily to the concerns of conservative Christians. He is pessimistic about such Christians having much influence in Washington and despairs that Washington politics can stop America from sliding farther into post-Christian decadence. Yet he insists that conservative Christians must keep defending religious liberty. Religious liberty here is framed as important insofar as it lets traditional Christians be traditional Christians, not because it’s core to American democracy or because Muslims, say, deserve the same freedom as Christians to practice their faith in peace.
Well, the audience for this book is conservative Christians. I’m pleased to have all kinds of readers, but the people to whom I’m speaking in this book are conservative Christians — or, as I prefer to call them (because it lacks the political connotation), small-o orthodox Christians. As I say at the start of the Politics chapter, our tribe has been far too quick over the past few decades to trust in partisan politics (specifically, partisan Republican politics). The book is by a theologically and culturally conservative Christian, for theologically and culturally conservative Christians.
I believe that religious liberty is important for a number of reasons, but I’m trying to get the conservative Christians who read The Benedict Option to understand that if our religious liberty is constricted or even taken away, we stand to lose the most precious of our freedoms. As I make clear in the book through interviews with law professors, religious liberty activists, and others, this is not at all an abstract threat. Yet a shocking number of conservative Christians don’t understand what’s happening, or what’s at risk. The Benedict Option is not a book about the glories of religious liberty in America — that would be a different book, one I would heartily endorse — but specifically speaks to a particular group of Christians about the most important issue facing us. As I write in the book:
Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option. Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values.
But not only religious liberty. When someone says that Dreher advocates Christian quietism and withdrawal from the public square, show them this passage from The Benedict Option:
To be sure, Christians cannot afford to vacate the public square entirely. The church must not shrink from its responsibility to pray for political leaders and to speak prophetically to them. Christian concern does not end with fighting abortion and with protecting religious liberty and the traditional family. For example, the new populism on the right may give traditionalist Christians the opportunity to shape a new GOP that on economic issues is about solidarity more with Main Street than Wall Street. Conservative Christians can and should continue working with liberals to fight sex trafficking, poverty, AIDS, and the like.
The real question facing us is not whether to quit politics entirely, but how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity—and when is it corrupting to be complicit? Donald Trump tore up the political rule book in every way. Faithful conservative Christians cannot rely unreflectively on habits learned over the past thirty years of political engagement. The times require much more wisdom and subtlety for those believers entering the political fray.
These are not the words of someone who believes that the only reason for Christians to stay involved in politics is to fight for religious liberty. I say that religious liberty is the most important political cause to which conservative Christians should devote their time, passion, and resources. Why? Hang on for a second, and I’ll tell you.
Meanwhile, Dreher overlooks the importance of Christians working in mediating institutions that protect the most vulnerable from being crushed by violence or greed. Take groups such as World Relief, an evangelical relief agency that has resettled more than a quarter million refugees in the United States since 1975. Most of the refugees are women and children who have uprooted their lives to flee violence and persecution. World Relief and other faith-based resettlement agencies receive grants from the State Department to do the difficult work of compassion that few Americans can do.
And conservative Christian leaders have been some of the most prominent to speak out against Trump’s recent executive order on travel. Dreher writes, “Nothing matters more than guarding the freedom of Christian institutions to nurture future generations in the faith . . . other objectives have to take a back seat.” But what if “other objectives” are protecting and defending members of marginalized groups who can’t speak for themselves?
I’m genuinely perplexed by Beaty’s faulting me for not speaking out in favor of mediating institutions that Christians are involved in. One of the main points of the book is to encourage the building and strengthening of these mediating institutions. And see, this is precisely why the chapter on politics stresses religious liberty. Those grants that World Vision receives from the State Department are at risk because World Vision, owing to its theological commitments, will not hire gays in same-sex marriages. [NOTE: I misread her citing “World Relief” as “World Vision”. Those are two different organizations. I apologize for the error, but the general point I’m making here stands all the same. — RD] In fact, World Vision itself was the cause of a 2007 Bush administration memo that allows religious groups receiving federal grant money to discriminate for religious reasons in its hiring. The Obama administration left that policy in place, and was strongly criticized from the left for it. If Katelyn Beaty wants to protect the ability of World Vision to do its vital work outside the political realm, then she should prioritize defending religious liberty inside the political realm. As I write in The Benedict Option:
As important as religious liberty is, though, Christians cannot forget that religious liberty is not an end in itself but a means to the end of living as Christians in full. Religious liberty is an important component in permitting us to get on with the real work of the church and with the Benedict Option. If protecting religious liberty requires us to compromise the moral beliefs that define us as Christians, then any victories we achieve will be hollow. The church’s mission on earth is not political success but fidelity.
Another Beaty criticism:
And this leads to the most glaring omission of the Benedict Option: its utter lack of engagement with the African American church. (Of note: Throughout the book, Dreher quotes only one person of color, an Indonesian monk living in Italy.) White traditional Christians who have lost cultural power can look back through history for models of resistance. But they also have models in their very midst: black Christians, who have lived for hundreds of years under state-sanctioned violence, who have their houses of worship vandalized, who continue to be victims of racially motivated shootings — and who attest to the enduring power of the gospel to heal divisions, forgive and live with countercultural hope.
This is not a bad point. It was a judgment call on my part. The book had to come in at 75,000 words, no more. That was the space I was given. Nearly every one of the chapters I wrote could have been a book in itself (and I hope some other Christian writers will write those books). It is almost a scandal, for example, that Work chapter is focused not so much on the Benedictine theology of labor (though that is there) as it is on helping small-o orthodox Christians think about the kinds of workplace and professional challenges they are likely to face in this post-Christian environment. But I had to make those kinds of editorial decisions. I considered whether or not to write about the black church in a Ben Op context, but could not figure out how to do it, frankly, at least not in the time I had to complete the work.
It was far more than a technical challenge. I do not believe that American Christians in general will face the kind of oppression that black Christians in the Jim Crow South suffered, at least not in the foreseeable future. As someone whose last book was a collaboration with an African-American actor about his family’s rise from slavery and segregation to achieve the American dream, I did not feel right comparing the crisis the broad church is facing in post-Christian America to the crisis that the black church faced under conditions of life and death, and extreme poverty. In working on that earlier book, I sat and listened to black people tell stories that shook me to my core. It seemed to me somewhat obscene to compare the potential for suffering that the American church in general faces going forward from this historical point to the experiences of black Americans whose churches were bombed, and who had to face state-sanctioned violence, including murder, with no hope of reprieve.
I do see lessons that the broader church can learn from the black church experience that could help us deal with great adversity, but I could not figure out a way to deal with those issues in a sensitive and nuanced way — at least not in a relatively short book that addresses a wide range of big topics — without seeming to appropriate the black experience unjustly. This speaks to my limitations as a writer, I suppose, but I believe I made the right decision — though I understand people who conclude otherwise. I do hope a black Christian writer will write a book about what Benedict Option lessons the rest of us can learn from the black church experience. Frankly, it’s not a book a white author has the moral authority to write, or at least not this white author.
OK, one more passage from Beaty’s piece:
The image Dreher uses most to talk about Christian life in our modern dark age is that of the Ark (you know, Noah’s big boat). In the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, the Ark is where the righteous survive as the whole world is destroyed in a great flood. To extend the metaphor, Christians today may very well need to build Arks, or institutions, that help them preserve the faith in a culture that easily washes it away. The difference between now and the days of Noah centers on God’s promise in the Bible: He will never let a great flood destroy all of life.
Christians living in a post-Christian nation could withdraw to their Arks, waiting for their neighbors and their cultures to be destroyed in a flood of moral chaos. But if they believe God’s promises in Scripture, then they’ll get busy building communities that throw their neighbors a line of real hope amid the coming tide.
Wait … what? This is all far more complicated than she indicates. In The Benedict Option, I make use of the term “liquid modernity,” taken from the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, to characterize the nature of the cultural and religious crisis upon the West. Here’s an explanation of what “liquid modernity” means (not from the Ben Op book, please note):
Liquid Modernity is sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s term for the present condition of the world as contrasted with the “solid” modernity that preceded it. According to Bauman, the passage from “solid” to “liquid” modernity created a new and unprecedented setting for individual life pursuits, confronting individuals with a series of challenges never before encountered. Social forms and institutions no longer have enough time to solidify and cannot serve as frames of reference for human actions and long-term life plans, so individuals have to find other ways to organize their lives.
Bauman’s vision of the current world is one in which individuals must to splice together an unending series of short-term projects and episodes that don’t add up to the kind of sequence to which concepts like “career” and “progress” could be meaningfully applied. These fragmented lives require individuals to be flexible and adaptable — to be constantly ready and willing to change tactics at short notice, to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret and to pursue opportunities according to their current availability. Liquid times are defined by uncertainty. In liquid modernity the individual must act, plan actions and calculate the likely gains and losses of acting (or failing to act) under conditions of endemic uncertainty. The time it takes to fully consider options and make fully formed decisions has fragmented.
This is the nature of our time and place. How are we Christians going to keep our heads above water, and ride out this catastrophic flood? I present the Benedictine monasteries of the early medieval period as cultural arks that carried Christianity and elements of the Greco-Roman tradition across the dark and stormy sea between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and Charlemagne (Thomas Cahill tells a similar story about monks, though from a Celtic Christian perspective, in How The Irish Saved Civilization).
I can only make sense of Beaty’s comments by assuming that she completely missed the metaphors of the Flood and the Ark, despite the fact that I laid them out as metaphors in language so plain that you’d have to really work to miss the point. I am in no way saying that the world faces a literal deluge, and it’s bizarre that she read The Benedict Option in this way. And it’s an inaccurate and uncharitable reading to posit the book as encouraging conservative Christians to sit on the Lido decks of their Ben Op arks watching indifferently as their neighbors drown. Here’s a passage from the book in which a monk of Norcia explains the role hospitality plays in Benedictine life:
Brother Francis Davoren, forty-four, the monastery’s brewmaster, used to be the refectorian, the monk charged with overseeing the dining room. He approached that task with sacramental imagination.
“Saint Benedict says that Christ is present in the brothers, and Christ is present in our guests. Every day I would think, ‘Christ is coming. I’m going to make this as pleasant for them as I can, because it showed them that we cared,’” he said. “That’s a good outreach to people: to respect them, to recognize their dignity, to show them that you can see Christ in them and want to bring them into your life.”
That chapter then talks about how the Rule sets limits on hospitality, though:
Saint Benedict commands his monks to be open to the outside world — to a point. Hospitality must be dispensed according to prudence, so that visitors are not allowed to do things that disrupt the monastery’s way of life. For example, at table, silence is kept by visitors and monks alike. As Brother Augustine put it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much, then we can’t really welcome anyone.” The monastery receives visitors constantly who have all kinds of problems and are seeking advice, help, or just someone to listen to them, and it’s important that the monks maintain the order needed to allow them to offer this kind of hospitality.
Rather than erring on the side of caution, though, Father Benedict [Nivakoff, a priest-monk in Norcia] believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise. “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in.”
The Benedict Option makes clear that our churches and Christian institutions are going to have to be arks not only for ourselves, but for refugees floating adrift in liquid modernity — men, women, and children who need rescue, shelter, sustenance, and community. As the book says:
This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. If Israel had been assimilated by the world of the ancient Near East, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church.
That’s what The Benedict Option actually says. How a reader gets from all this the idea that I’ve written a book for the frozen chosen to read to prepare for cruising into the Apocalypse is a mystery. Is this book so much of a threat to settled ways of American Christian thinking and living that its arguments have to be strawmanned to be dismissed?
By way of contrast, here’s a favorable review in the Weekly Standard by Andrew T. Walker, a conservative Evangelical who appears to have read a different book. Excerpt:
Dreher’s proposals have been criticized as an intellectually astute form of cultural retreat. But a careful reading puts this notion to rest. Dreher’s manifesto is suffused with a forward-looking engagement with the world. Serving and preserving Western culture may, at times, require the church to stand against it, and even subvert it. “There is a hidden blessing in this crisis,” he writes, “if we will open our eyes to it. Just as God used chastisement in the Old Testament to call His people back to Himself, so He may be delivering a like judgment onto a church and a people grown cold from selfishness, hedonism, and materialism.”
American Christianity may worry over its declining cultural influence, but Dreher sees the potential for joy in the mourning of a lost cultural hegemony. In exile, finding one’s identity means stripping off the fancy gloss and strengthening one’s resolve.
For the sake of full disclosure, Andrew is a friend, and has become one over the past couple of years as I’ve been talking about the Benedict Option project. He and Denny Burk have given me invaluable guidance in helping me to understand Evangelicalism and potential Evangelical objections to the Ben Op. They have guided my thinking, whether they knew what they were doing or not. I’m indebted to Andrew for this kind review, but more importantly, I’m indebted to him and to Denny for their friendship and counsel more than I can say.