Harvard Magazine has a good story about the historical preservationist work done by Father Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk. Excerpt:

“The key to our survival as a species,” he adds, “may well be small, sustainable communities. Monks and nuns excel at creating such micro-environments. Some have spoken recently of a ‘Benedict option’ as a way to save Christian values by retreating from society. A clarion call of the Second Vatican Council was to recognize the modern world as it is, and then to work with it, [as] a leaven of reconciliation and kindness in the midst of rapid and dislocating change. That’s my kind of Benedictine life: open to all seekers, meeting people where they are, inviting them into the sanity provided by a structured life centered on gathering together throughout the day to share the ancient wisdom of the Psalms and find a moment of quiet reflection. It certainly works for me.”

Hey, Father Columba Stewart! Read the book. It doesn’t say what you think it says.

For a clearer idea on what the book actually says, Ryan Marr’s take on the Benedict Option is well worth reading. Excerpts:

According to Dreher, our best hope for standing firm in the face of this cultural tsunami is “to form stronger, thicker communities based on a commitment to virtue.” These communities will take on diverse forms depending upon the unique circumstances in which they take root. The key will not be to fit a predetermined, cookie-cutter pattern of life. Rather, such communities will be Benedictine, according to Dreher’s understanding of the term, to the extent that they foster genuine economic solidarity and enable the transmission of Christian culture, both of which will be the natural outworking of shared convictions about God and God’s activity in the world.

Anticipating criticisms of his proposal, Dreher clarifies that he is not calling for a sectarian withdrawal from the world in a neo-Amish key. Nevertheless, the Benedict Option will “require some sort of meaningful withdrawal,” though this withdrawal will be for the sake of the world, not to watch it burn. The meaningful withdrawal that Dreher has in mind will be a strategic retreat. Such a retreat is necessary, because the cultural soil of late-modern America has become so shallow that genuinely Christian forms of life can no longer take root in it. As Dreher (channeling the work of Robert Louis Wilken) sees the matter,

We cannot be the Church if we lose our vocabulary and the conceptual framework that makes us Christian. This is precisely the point: we have given ourselves over to a culture that is radically present-oriented, built around the beliefs that there ought to be few limits on human agency and human will. Desire is its own justification. That Christians too often have not resisted modernity and its fruits (hedonism, consumerism, individualism) accounts for the dissolution of Christianity and its reification as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (essentially, the idea that God exists to serve us and to make us feel good about ourselves).

Life-giving forms of Christian community will be those that strategically resist the hedonism, consumerism, and individualism that pervade. These forms of community will necessarily involve withdrawal, but this withdrawal will be, as Timothy O’Malley puts it, “a retreat into Catholic particularity so that the Church might be better prepared to offer the fruits of her life for the world.”

Marr, a Catholic, contrasts the Benedict Option with the approach of the “New Monastics,” a loose affiliation of pacifist and progressive Protestants. He also takes up John Zmirak’s critique of the Ben Op. Then he says:

The creative minority approach also offers a fruitful way for reading and applying Dreher’s Benedict Option. If John Zmirak is right that Dreher’s Benedict Option means that Catholics should abandon their public witness to important truths about marriage and the dignity of every human life, then of course we should not heed Dreher’s charge. But, as I read Dreher, that does not seem to be what he has in mind. In fact, in a blog post written in response to some of his critics, Dreher quoted Ratzinger directly to explain why “meaningful withdrawal” might prove necessary: “In reality, morality is always embedded in a wider religious context in which it ‘breathes’ and finds its proper environment. Outside this environment, morality cannot breathe; it weakens and then dies.” One weakness with recent attempts to resist militant secularism, Dreher suggests, is that we have been attempting to fight anti-Christian ways of life on their own terms. In a certain sense, we have fallen for the Gnostic temptation of thinking that we could somehow out-narrate secularism while remaining securely embedded in the individualistic, hedonistic, and consumerist soil from which it has arisen. The challenge that lies before us is not primarily an intellectual one (though our response cannot be anti-intellectual); rather, it has to do mostly with cultivating renewed forms of discipleship. In Dreher’s words, “We need not Christianity as the affirmation of certain theological principles, but as those principles deeply imbedded in communal practices.”

To borrow from another Catholic theologian, already mentioned, we need to consider what Timothy O’Malley calls a retreat toward engagement. As a model for this kind of strategic retreat, O’Malley points to the historic legacy of Catholic educational institutions here in the United States. Many of these schools were founded as a safe havens within an inhospitable culture, but precisely through this retreat from public life they came to serve the common good. Given recent trends which indicate that “the public sphere is becoming increasingly unfriendly toward a Catholic worldview,” O’Malley wonders if the time has come again “to retreat into Catholic particularity for the sake of deeper engagement with the world.” As he points out—and, in my mind, this is the crucial point—“a retreat of Catholics away from public institutions and the cultural norms that such institutions presume is not a choice between withdrawal or engagement.” Rather, the telos of such a retreat must be to foster Catholic particularity, so that the body of Christ “might be better prepared to offer the fruits of her life for the world.” The Benedict Option, in this light, will involve sailing between the Scylla of resurrecting Christendom through whatever means possible and the Charybdis of retreating into an idealized ghetto in which we can huddle together and wait for the return of Christ, free from any contact with the impurities of a wicked world.

Read the whole thing. I’m very grateful to Marr for his thoughtful engagement with my book. You might also check out the shorter piece the Catholic Timothy O’Malley authored, cited by Marr. An excerpt from that:

Hence, a retreat of Catholics away from public institutions and the cultural norms that such institutions presume is not a choice between withdrawal or engagement. Rather, it should always be a retreat into Catholic particularity so that the Church might be better prepared to offer the fruits of her life for the world.

Perhaps now is the right time for the Church to once again retreat into Catholic particularity for the sake of deeper engagement in the world. In the context of Catholic education, it has become the case that many institutions once established to pass on a Catholic worldview have bought in wholesale to secular paradigms that deconstruct the Catholic genius. Theological education, rather than an encounter with the discipline of faith seeking understanding, becomes a thin introduction to generic spiritual principles. Many Catholic schools, once established to educate the least among us, are now recognized as premier places to climb the social ladder toward success. Mission statements, except for an occasional reference to God or the Church, are seemingly taken verbatim from secular peers. Catholic identity, in the end, is not a free-floating term, reducible to a series of universal principles. Rather, it is the result of immersing oneself into a series of narratives and practices found within the Church that constitute a way of life. To maintain these narratives and practices will necessarily involve, at times, a retreat away from those other narratives and practices that compete with the Catholic worldview.

Yet, this retreat into particularity can never become sectarian. The ecclesial vision of the Second Vatican Council is not a Church radically against the world, attempting to construct an alternative community apart from the human family. Rather, the Church must retreat into particularity precisely because it is only in the particularity of our vision of human life taken up into Christ that we have anything to offer the world to begin with. [Emphasis mine — RD]

This is exactly right! I don’t know if I’ve read anything yet that so clearly enunciates the paradox within the Benedict Option.

I’ve been so pleased to see that there has been a sharp rise of sales of The Benedict Option in the past week. All I can figure is that a lot of people are going to be getting it for Christmas. Well and good. May they find the ideas presented in the book challenging, and stimulating to their own creative thought about how we small-o orthodox Christians — Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox — can work within our own traditions, and across ecclesial lines, to strengthen ourselves and each other. This is the only way that we, as Christians, will have anything to offer the world to begin with.