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What Is The Benedict Option For?

Piazza of St. Benedict, in Norcia, before the earthquake

A reader writes, commenting on my Rich Young Rulers Vs. SJWs post:

I teach at [a college in a deep red state] and the opinion held by the essayist in the SJW vs. Rich Young Ruler posting dovetails with what I see around here. The students we have and I observe are mostly too busy to engage in activism and a fanatical devotion to social justice.

Most are satisfied to smoke weed, drink, and fornicate. The posting you put up about “rape rape” last summer is largely accurate here–just more prescription drugs and weed. Then that is chased the next day by the morning after pills. This subject came up in one of my classes and I let the discussion run to hear what was said. I was under few illusions about the students, but that discussion caused what few scales I had to fall.

Around here, as long as the students are entertained and able to get cheap food they are happy. (Bread and circuses). That said, I teach history and have read enough to believe I can guess what is coming. The true believers at the Stanfords, Berkeleys, and Ivy Leagues plus a handful of other prominent universities are the SJWs of today; they will, by virtue of their educational perch, be the leaders of the country tomorrow. People who lead a state or run a bureaucracy don’t come from [my college]. These future leaders are illiberal today and will crush those who don’t bow to their orthodoxy tomorrow.

Applying that to the article, the kids I deal with don’t care too much about anything except bread and circuses–with a few exceptions. This majority remind me of the average German of the 1930s. When the Nazis sought to co-opt the church and use it to further the Nazi ideology, the Confessing Church resisted, (think Bonhoeffer) spoke out, and faced persecution. Most Germans, at least according to Richard Evans’ The Third Reich in Power, didn’t trust the fanatical Nazis because they were too dogmatic about National Socialism, but they had made the economy better, broke the Communists, and gave order to society. The average German didn’t trust the preachers either because they were fanatics for God and they took the Bible seriously. Ultimately, the Nazis came to understand that if the average parishioner and congregant were left alone to celebrate their holidays, festivals, and have an unobtrusive church service that didn’t demand too much, the average German was satisfied. That gave the Nazis the free hand they needed to break the opposition of the Confessing Church.

What I am saying is that most of the Christians I meet on campus are nice kids, but know little about their faith, and when the pressure of a bureaucracy or the threat of an empowered SJW comes, I am afraid they will roll over as long as their life is not disrupted too much. They might say, “Sure the SJW bureaucrat is a fanatic, but so are those preachers. Just leave us alone.”

I’m reading these comments after spending a big part of this morning doing the On Point with Tom Ashbrookradio show for NPR (follow the link to the episode). On Point is my favorite public radio interview show, and I wish I had done better on this outing. I’m realizing how easy the Ben Op is to caricature. I had to keep saying that I’m not not not not not calling for a total retreat from the public square.

A transgender person called in and wanted to know if there was any room in my church for her. I said of course there was, because we are all sinners. That transgendered person is a precious child of God, no question. But I did not want to leave the impression that being a part of the church means that we don’t have to change, to repent. There is one standard for all Christians. I don’t know enough about transgenderism from an Orthodox theological point of view to offer any kind of pastoral counsel to that particular person, and heaven knows a call-in radio show is not the place to do that. But when host Tom Ashbrook said that “there is no place for her in your country,” or words close to that, I did not really know how to respond. It’s not true, but by the time I understood the claim, the moment had passed. I think that many well-intentioned liberals simply cannot stand the thought of diversity unless they set the terms. Like very many liberals, Ashbrook was genuinely perplexed that I, as an Orthodox Christian, expect gays and lesbians to be celibate. I told him all Christians who are not married are expected to be celibate, and I said that this was what all Christians in all ages believed until the day before yesterday.

Anyway, a reader of this blog e-mailed:

I just finished listening to your bit for On Point; thank you for doing that. I was incredibly frustrated while listening, so I can’t imagine how you must have felt. I don’t think people are intentionally being thick when they respond in anger or dismissal to arguments that you don’t even put forth in your book, but, nevertheless, I imagine that is a source for discouragement for you. Thanks for being respectful and Christ-like today.

One thing I’ve thought about much in these past few weeks is how perfectly the popular response to your book fits into your narrative of Christianity being under attack. For decades, secular culture has been asking Christians to stick to themselves, to live out their faith in their community while not encroaching upon other communities. The existence of the Religious Right infuriated them, and they wished Christians would be less forceful in weaving their faith into the fabric of the popular culture. As pluralism and “tolerance” won the day, they demanded that Christians get in line. It occurs to me that the BenOp is perhaps the most prominent prescription for following these orders, and it’s instructive that it is still unacceptable to secular culture. Does that make sense? That is, in the BenOp we finally have a method of living that seems to jive with what secular culture has been demanding since the sexual revolution. That this method now isn’t good enough for secular culture because it doesn’t affirm and accept everyone is case and point for the premise behind the BenOp in the first place (to which so many stridently disagree). I wonder, as you defend yourself and your book, if it would be helpful to frame the response in that way? For instance: “Look, isn’t the BenOp exactly what you have been asking of orthodox Christianity for 60 years? We are now prepared to do what you want, why do you want to inhibit that? That you demand the BenOp affirm and accept everyone proves my point that Christianity is now intolerable to the prevailing culture, and thus that the BenOp is necessary.”

I also think it would be helpful to frame the BenOp as one interpretation of how to “live in the world, but not of it.” Since those words were first uttered by Christ, Christians have worked to develop a way of actually living them out that makes sense, and different methods have been necessary for different times and places. These methods have taken many forms, not all of them truly orthodox and not all of them truly successful. I get that maybe you would be more forceful than saying the BenOp is one of many options for American orthodox Christians, but I think it would help readers and listeners if they were able to frame it that way — as one interpretation of Jesus’ words. As Christians, how do we live out those words? Is the BenOp better for this time than any other option?

An interesting take. I wish I had been more aggressive in the radio interview in steering the conversation, especially when my friend Andrew Sullivan joined it, towards this question: What is Christianity for? The answer to that question ought to determine what you think of the Ben Op.

Modern Christianity — which inevitably devolves into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — is about rationalism and self-comfort. Pre-modern Christianity is about conforming to a divinely mandated way of life according to standards beyond the self. Of course it’s not that simple either way, but this is the gist of the matter. I’m going to be on a couple more national NPR shows this month, and I’m going to try to discuss this central point. If we just end up talking about gays, or politics, or ancillary issues, we won’t get to the meat of it.

This biting satirical essay by Andrew Wilson speaks directly to the heart of the problem with modern Christianity.  In it, he talks about how Christianity rightly understood justifies idol worship (remember, this is satire). He writes:

I start with my own story, and the stories of many others like me. I’m an evangelical, and have a high view of the Bible—I have a PhD in biblical studies at King’s College London, which will be my third theology degree—and I know both the ancient languages and also the state of scholarly research. Yet, after much prayerful study, I’ve discovered the liberating truth that it’s possible to be an idolatrous Christian. That, at least, is evidence that you can be an evangelical and an idolater.

Not only that, but a number of evangelical writers have been challenging the monolatrous narrative in a series of scholarly books. A number of these provide a powerful case for listening to the diversity of the ancient witnesses in their original contexts, and call for a Christlike approach of humility, openness, and inclusion toward our idolatrous brothers and sisters.

Some, on hearing this, will of course want to rush straight to the “clobber passages” in Paul’s letters (which we will consider in a moment), in a bid to secure the fundamentalist ramparts and shut down future dialogue. But as we consider the scriptural material, two things stand out.

First, the vast majority of references to idols and idolatry in the Bible come in the Old Testament—the same Old Testament that tells us we can’t eat shellfish or gather sticks on Saturdays. When advocates of monolatry eat bacon sandwiches and drive cars on the weekend, they indicate we should move beyond Old Testament commandments in the new covenant, and rightly so.

Second, and even more significantly, we need to read the whole Bible with reference to the approach of Jesus. To be a Christian is to be a Jesus person—one whose life is based on his priorities, not on the priorities of subsequent theologians. And when we look at Jesus, we notice that he welcomed everyone who came to him, including those whom the (one-God worshiping) religious leaders rejected—and that Jesus said absolutely nothing about idols in any of the four Gospels. Conservative theologians, many of whom are friends of mine, often miss this point in the cut-and-thrust of debate. But for those who love Jesus, it should be at the heart of the discussion.

Jesus had no problem with idolatry.

He included everyone, however many gods they worshiped.

If we want to be like him, then we should adopt the same inclusive approach.

Read the whole thing. You see where he’s going with this. Modern Christianity does the same kind of thing: rationalizing modern beliefs, no matter how much they conflict with the Bible. (Yes, conservative Christians do this too at times.)

The point is this: is the purpose of Christianity to call you outside of yourself, to grant you forgiveness from your sins and to offer you new life, and healing? Or is it to confirm you where you are right now, and to relieve your anxiety over your condition?

We can agree that Christianity is therapeutic, in that it is meant to heal you. Does that healing consist of at-times painful surgery and spiritual therapy, or does that healing consist of a heavy dose of painkillers to mask the underlying broken condition?

I am grateful to Steve Thorngate, writing in the Mainline Protestant journal Christian Century, for his thoughtful essay, “What Is The Benedict Option For?” He writes:

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option touches on an array of subjects, from the decline of the Christian West to the atomizing effects of smartphones to the competing rights claims of same-sex couples and evangelical bakers. It does this in tones pitched variously to inform, to motivate, or to air grievance. So there is ample opportunity for readers to be distracted from Dreher’s overall purposes, as indeed many have been—interpreting The Benedict Option as either a political tract against same-sex marriage or a separatist call to take to the hills. Both readings are there for the proof-texter’s picking; neither attends to the deeper vision of this provocative book.

To do that, you have to appreciate who the book is for. It is not aimed at conservative political activists, though its publisher is known for just that. It doesn’t target radicals who aspire to rarified modes of Christian community, though Dreher finds much to admire there. Nor is it meant to enlighten spiritual seekers or the social scientists who study them.

No, Dreher writes for the church and the ordinary Christians in it. He sees existential threats to the faith—from without but especially from within, where bonds are frayed and formation is thin. Inspired by the well-known ending of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, Dreher looks to St. Benedict for a survival plan. How can the church build the internal strength it needs?

Would it surprise you to learn that I very nearly had tears in my eyes reading that? I hadn’t seen anything else Thorngate had to say about the book, but to know that here is someone who has heard what I have to say, whether or not he agrees with it, was such a relief.


Dreher emphasizes, however, that the Benedict Option is not just about rejecting the bad, technological or otherwise. It’s about cultivating the good; it’s resistance by way of creation. Dreher is at his best when he is constructive and concrete, and his chapter explicating Benedict’s Rule for 21st-century laypeople is perhaps his most compelling. Cultivating the good means seeing God’s presence in the everyday, in mundane routine. Anxious people are “looking for that ‘killer app’ that will make everything right again”; Benedictine life shows another way. Develop a discipline of prayer. Let your approach to work flow out of that prayer. Grow roots in a place, among a people. Go to church, and linger afterward—be a pilgrim, not a tourist.

Our lives are inevitably centered on something, says Dreher, and it requires daily practice to ensure that something is Christ. So the most pressing task for Christians is to embed themselves in the day-to-day life of Christian community. And wherever thick Christian ways of life do not exist, they will simply have to be built, one local, unglamorous piece at a time.

This doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to national politics, but it does mean giving it less relative emphasis. If the Benedict Option is a withdrawal strategy, it’s one of priority, not principle. It’s not that public life has no value, only that time is limited and other things matter more: Christian culture and community, a faithful alternative to the reigning order.

This will all sound quite familiar to most mainline Protestant church leaders, and quite compelling to a lot of them. Dreher’s themes echo the postliberal theology popularized by, among others, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon. Their thinking has met some resistance in the mainline, but it has also deeply shaped it—especially the distrust many of us have for the imperial state, our refusal to cede the high christological ground to evangelicals, and our localist-communitarian ideals.

I urge you to read the whole thing. Thorngate goes on to criticize The Benedict Option for giving short shrift to liberal Mainline Protestantism, and to explain why, in his view, I am wrong to dismiss that tradition, and the fruits it has borne (e.g., acceptance of same-sex marriage). I don’t agree with him, obviously, and I don’t agree with him on several points he mentions in the latter half of his piece. But I don’t want to emphasize that in this blog. I simply want to thank Steve Thorngate, liberal Protestant, for a fair-minded, vigorous engagement with the Benedict Option concept. Note that he ends with a call for his fellow liberal Protestants to articulate a Benedict Option for themselves.

He does that, I think, because though Thorngate doesn’t agree with the solutions I as an Orthodox Christian offer, he agrees (or seems to agree) that we contemporary Christians on all sides have lost a sense of what Christianity is supposed to be for. In reading Thorngate’s essay, I have a better sense of why David Brooks called The Benedict Option “the most important religious book of the decade.” It is meant for ordinary conservative/orthodox Christians, to challenge them to ask themselves what Christianity is for, and whether or not the way they live, individually and in community, serves to fit them to that purpose.

St. Benedict begins his Rule with this exhortation:

Listen, O my son, to the precepts of your master, and incline the ear of your heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of your loving Father, that by the toil of obedience you may return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience you have departed.

The one thing we contemporary Christians in the West do not want to do is to listen. A big part of it is being American. Whether we are liberal or conservative, many of us are quite certain that we have it all figured out, and that we need to tell other peoples around the world what they must do. We also reserve the right to lecture all the men and women of ages past about how they have fallen short of the wonderfulness that is the standard we set.

We are prideful. We have to change our lives. That is what Christianity is for.


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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