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The Ben Op’s Ordinary Christian Virtues

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I apologize for putting another Ben Op post up today, but there were two more pieces I wanted to draw to your attention, and I don’t want to let the opportunity pass. I’m not going to be blogging much on Monday, because I’m going to have THE DOCTOR PLUNGE A NEEDLE INTO MY NECK AND INJECT STEROIDS INTO THE ANGRY, BULGING DISCS OF MY SPINAL COLUMN a medical procedure related to the automobile mishap I had last December, and I am advised that it will require sedation — the kind that doesn’t come in a cocktail glass. So there’s that.

First, take a look at this excellent précis by Brad Littlejohn: “The Benedict Option In 43 Propositions”.  Here’s his bullet-point summary of one chapter, for example:


  • Learn the riches of your theological tradition, rediscover your past (102-5)

  • Liturgical worship (105-13)

    • Refocuses on God speaking to us, rather than us expressing ourselves
    • Involvement of the body as well as spirit
    • A rhythm that disciplines our desires
  • Recover fasting (114-15)

  • Recover church discipline (116-17)

  • Evangelize with goodness and beauty (117-19)

The whole thing is really good, but I must protest that Littlejohn overlooked the chapters advocating white male privilege, disregarding the non-wealthy, and white supremacy. (/snark)

Littlejohn’s full review of the book is here. It’s not entirely favorable, but his criticism is really thoughtful, and I appreciate it.

In the same way, I love Jesuit Father Paddy Gilger’s review in America. He has some serious disagreements with The Benedict Option, but boy, is this piece ever a model of thoughtful critical engagement with the book. It begins:

Whether you come to it from the left or the right, Rod Dreher’s long-awaited The Benedict Option is a book that will not satisfy. Which is exactly why you should read it.

Gilger describes the book’s accounting for our cultural crisis, and its proposal for countering it, and writes:

And it is from this paired diagnosis and prescription that all of the conclusions in this problematic, beautiful, infuriating, necessary book flow.

It ought to come as no surprise that the book fails to satisfy. The Benedict Option is, after all, a rejection the both liberal and conservative political projects; the former because it rejects the values of the left, the latter because it believes the right has already been defeated.

Gilger then lists his main objections to the book. I won’t go into them here, because they are familiar to readers of most previous reviews (I don’t say that dismissively, not at all). I was pleasantly surprised by the good things that such a strong critic of The Benedict Option had to say about it. Look:

This may seem like a long list—and it is. But nothing is gained by settling only for critique. To do so means refusing to learn from the large swaths of what Dreher gets right. Because what Dreher gets right is just as important—perhaps even more important—as where he misses the mark.

The signal gift in Dreher’s work, the one our legitimate dissatisfactions may allow us to too-quickly overlook, is his steady insistence that in order to be Christians today—to bear the name of Christ in truth as well as in title—we must relearn two things: practices and disciplines. That is, Dreher is right in his persistent repetition that, when it comes to the question of how we build Christian persons, how we become Christians in habit as well as in mind, “what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it.”

He also praises the Ben Op’s focus on Christian community:

I need a community to sustain me in my effort to practice being a Christian. As do we all. When looked at in this light, the Benedict Option begins to look less like a reactionary withdrawal from pluralist societies than a recommitment to a local politics of subsidiarity.

It is by looking again at our human need for such small communities of practice that Dreher’s admittedly controversial take on individual and communal disciplines comes more clearly into focus. The heart of his argument is that there are times when communal goods must trump individual freedoms. And this is because churches, argues Dreher, fall apart when they become simply another “loosely bound assembly of individuals committed to finding their own ‘truth.’”

And this is fantastic:

The conflict between individual freedom and the common good—between loosing and binding—is what lies at the heart of what is most necessary and most problematic about the Benedict Option. This is because, on the one hand, the trumping of individual freedoms by a common way of life always threatens to turn into autocracy and domination. But, on the other hand, we are all too aware that, in the liquid modernity in which we find ourselves, the trumping of the common good by individual freedom always threatens to destroy community.

This is what accounts for the strange mixture of attraction and repulsion that so many of us—liberal individualists that we are—feel when we read about the Benedict Option. We are attracted to it, and our attraction resonates because of how deeply we want community, how desperately we want to be reassured that the world makes sense and that our lives have a place within it. But the repulsion is there as well, and not only because, like the freedom-addicts we are, we are so hooked on individuality. The repulsion is there because there is a great goodness that we have found in the recognition that each of us is—really, in all actuality—a unique facet of the immortal diamond, the one who shines in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.

This is why The Benedict Option fails to satisfy. Not because Dreher has failed, but because he has succeeded in showing us our own failure to hold these two constitutive goods in loving tension. He is right to say that we “have been loosed but we do not know how to bind.” We must relearn how. And if you choose to read Dreher’s book, the exact shape of your dissatisfaction with it will, I venture to guess, correspond to the extent that you have experienced God as a loosing or as a binding force in your own life.

Read the whole thing. I want to thank Father Gilger profoundly for his review. It taught me something about my own book. And it taught me something else too. It is far too easy to allow ourselves to be bound by unrealistically rigid left-right categories. I’m often guilty of this. Because so much of the criticism of this book coming from the left has struck me as unfair, I have slipped into a defensive reflex against jabs coming from the left. When I found out that America, the Jesuit journal, was going to review the book, I … well, I don’t know what I expected, but it was nothing good.

In fact, as you will have seen, it was a critical review, but also a laudatory one in many ways, and in every respect a review that delighted me for its insight and its fairness. It brought to mind a question a Catholic academic asked me at the Ciceronian Society dinner last night. He asked if I thought Pope Francis’s calls on Christians to engage the world fit with the Benedict Option. I told him I was divided on that. I absolutely think we have to engage, but we cannot give the world what we don’t have. My problem with Francis in this regard is that he seems to downplay or disregard orthodoxy, catechesis, and formation. Engagement without orthodoxy and formation in Catholic doctrine and discipline is hard to distinguish from mere social work.

Later, though, I reflected on how much I had liked Francis’s encyclical Laudato si, the pope’s teaching on ecological concern, and how much I found in it that resonated with my own convictions, previously as a Roman Catholic, and presently as an Eastern Orthodox. I reflected that even as I share the deep concern of my Catholic friends about the doctrinal confusion caused by this papacy, I should be careful not to let that overlook those areas of agreement I have with Francis — areas in which the followers of Francis might be allies. As Father Gilger wrote in his review:

Nevertheless, I take Dreher’s book to be doing the church a genuine and needed service. To the extent that his work reminds us that Christianity is a way of living together in the truth—reminds us that today binding is perhaps more necessary than ever—our response ought to be not dissatisfaction but gratitude.

Finding, then, in the Benedict Option a reminder of the grace of having been bound to a spouse, a family or a church, Dreher may become an ally rather than another rival to scapegoat. And Dreher, being reminded that there are more ways than Benedict’s to bind, may too discover that he has allies in unexpected places.

Well said. Thank you, Father Gilger. Please read his entire review all the way to the end, to read the poem from Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin, which tells the truth.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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