I had a number of conversations yesterday at the Walker Percy Weekend festival with people who have read The Benedict Option. I kid you not, every single one of them began with my interlocutor expressing bewilderment that so many reviewers and commenters write as if the book urged Christians to withdraw completely from society and head for the hills.
Said one man, “I’ve been arguing with four of my Christian friends about it. They read one guy who said you were calling for total withdrawal, and they decided they wouldn’t read your book. I keep telling them, ‘Guys, you’re wrong. Read the book!'”
A woman told me that a pastor she knows reviewed the book on his website. When she confronted him about it, he admitted that he had just skimmed it. Sounds to me like he was just looking for enough to justify his prejudices.
I asked that woman how she would account for this phenomenon, which is common. She said that it’s because what The Benedict Option asks of Christians is difficult. She said the diagnosis is dire, and the prescription is hard. People are desperate not to face these realities, she said, because if what I write is true, then we Christians are going to have to change our lives in ways that we may not like.
I thanked her for that observation. It’s my theory too. Again, I welcome critical engagement with the book, but only so long as it’s honest. Here’s a mixed review from Michael Allen, a Presbyterian theologian. I recommend it as an example of thoughtful critical engagement with The Benedict Option. Excerpts:
The Benedict Option does identify severe threats to orthodox Christian faith, though it is worth noting that they lie almost entirely within the walls of the city of God. It is true that Dreher does observe the broad advance of sexual freedom and of the recalibration of thought regarding gender and sexuality (2-3, 9, 179-186). And he does identity religious liberty, the attack upon which is so often tied to matters LGBT, as one of two great cultural challenges today (80, 84). But these are marginal notes by comparison to his overarching concern to address malformation within the body of Christ.
Nonetheless, suggestions that The Benedict Option calls for abandonment of the world are misperceptions. We should attend to his specific strategies which are particular and then consider how they fit together in a broader framework. The book includes a genealogy and governing images, but it really functions more as a set of protocols meant to invite further imagination regarding Christian formation and cultural engagement than as a programmatic manifesto.
How does Dreher tie together these protocols and strategies? He began the book with a warning of the “great flood” and, unsurprisingly, turns to the image of the church as ark at its conclusion. Some might suggest that this inherently involves an unchristian failure of nerve. But two observations should caution us at this point. First, ark imagery has remarkable pedigree in the Christian tradition, precisely because it has biblical warrant (1 Pet. 3:20-21). Second, Dreher explicitly contextualizes the ark imagery with that of the wellspring.
“The church, then, is both Ark and Wellspring—and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But he also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the water of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of his grace. You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously” (238).
Being guarded from external threats must be matched by being revived internally by Christ’s own life-giving presence. “The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is. Benedictine spirituality teaches us to bear with the world in love and to transform it as the Holy Spirit transforms us” (77). Repeatedly, he calls us to take these kinds of thick practices “out of the monastery” for the sake of the church and her surrounding culture (77, 93-94, 98, 125, 236). He suggests certain ways of doing so, that we might then take our witness faithfully to the world as well.
Third, Dreher’s book rightly points to the significance of attending not only to individual formation but also to the pivotal role played by institutions, especially those which might be termed mediating institutions between the individual/family and the larger government/nation. He attends to the church and the neighborhood/city, and he reflects on the claim that it takes a village to raise a Christian (122-123). His comments are especially insightful in noting that we need to support the integrity of family structure amidst the challenges brought by the sexual revolution (not only the LGBT and transgender movements of late but, much earlier, the revolution wrought by no-fault divorce) without lapsing into idolizing the family and reminding ourselves of the theological and moral importance of other mediating structures, especially the ekklesia (128-129). Dreher also commends sacrificial giving (of time, treasure, and talent) that these kinds of mediating institutions (churches, schools, and so forth) are available for Christian men, women, and children in places of plenty and of plight. For instance, his call toward Christian classical education is not merely a suggestion that parents ought to commit to it, but that Christians ought to philanthropically support it for others as well. Even if we have noted ways in which this should be tempered as but one strategic option, we must also appreciate that he is calling for a churchly mindset that views one’s own resources as stewarded for the greater good rather than just the privilege of the upper classes. Dreher summons us to sacrificially investing in institutions that will shape the good neighborhood and the faithful church.
Read the whole thing. Prof. Allen does have some pointed criticisms, from a Reformed point of view. All of it is fair. I thank him for his careful attention to my book.
Readers, if you’ve not read The Benedict Option because you’ve heard certain things about it, I invite you to consider that you have been misled. As Prof. Allen says, the book “ought to be viewed as a conversation starter and a prompt for further analysis regarding culture, the church, and Christian formation.” That is, the book is meant to seed a series of conversations within the church, and to guide Christians who don’t want to keep their heads in the sand towards serious discussions, leading to action. If you reject the book and its thesis, that’s fine — but know what it is you’re rejecting, and why you are rejecting it.
It’s gratifying to hear from folks that their pastors are reading the book, and encouraging their congregations to do the same.