On Understanding The Benedict Option
Behold, a couple of reviews of The Benedict Option by reviewers who really understood the book.
First, excerpts from Thomas Ascik’s review in The Imaginative Conservative. Like me, Ascik is frustrated that many commenters who dismiss the book don’t seem to be reacting to what’s actually in the thing:
Rod Dreher, in his much-discussed The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), asserts that we are living in “post-Christian America.” It seems that no one, whether on the left or right, disagrees with this assessment, from liberal critic Emma Green (“Christianity is no longer the cultural default”), to conservative writers Fr. Dwight Longenecker (“the tsunami of anti-Christian culture”) and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (“traditional religion in all its forms has become a counterculture in the West”), to Patrick Gilger (“Christian America is already a contradiction in terms”) and Damon Linker (“a minority in a majority secular nation”) also agree.
So, how should Christians react to the widely acknowledged reality that Christendom—that is, civilization and culture based on Christian principles and morality—is dead? Mr. Dreher says that “Christians are now in a time of decision,” and he calls on them to take concrete steps to preserve their Christian way of life in this country. Almost all the reviews of Mr. Dreher’s book concentrate on and criticize his supposedly monastic and society-denying “option” and downplay his very uncomfortable assessment of the need for that option. This review does the opposite.
Thank you, Thomas Ascik! It is interesting to see how many conservatives agree with me that we’re in some sort of civilizational crisis, but who resist the idea that we have to do anything different in response to it.
Though Mr. Dreher says that Christian politics has failed, he does not argue—contrary to what several of his critics claim—that Christians should completely withdraw from politics. Instead, he proposes “anti-political politics.” By this, he means, first, that because society is post-Christian, political and social opportunities are somewhat limited. Second, since culture is part of politics, the concentration by Christians should be on opportunities to affect local culture first. Following the example and testimony of the Czech dissidents under communism, whom Mr. Dreher cites repeatedly in the book, a “parallel polis” at the local level should be erected, a small counter-cultural community (with Tocqueville as additional inspiration, of course) where social bonds and solidarity can be created, fostered, and maintained—a decisive turning away from the centralized forces of media, government, and corporations.
In perhaps his most challenging chapter and the chapter that almost all reviewers have avoided talking about, Mr. Dreher points out that since Christianity is incarnational—that is, embodied—it has everything to do with the body, which means it has everything to do with sex. The Christian faith is lived every day by men and women—“male and female He created them”—in complementarity. Jesus took on a human body and came to redeem our bodies as well as our souls. The way we treat our bodies is our response to Jesus’ embodiment. Sexual practices are “central,” to Christian life and “the linchpin” of Christian culture, Mr. Dreher contends. The predominant reason people abandon Christianity has to do with Christian sexual morality rather than theology.
The “body,” both for individuals and for the social body, is now in advanced crisis in this country. Homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism are fundamental aspects of the body and what it means—if anything—to say that we are bodily creatures. Although he asserts at one point that “future historians” may find it hard to understand “how the sexual desires of only three to four percent of the population became the fulcrum on which an entire worldview was dislodged and overturned,” at another point he answers the question on his own. Americans accepted gay marriage so quickly based on “what they had already come to believe about the meaning of heterosexual sex and marriage.”
Mr. Dreher is hard on pastors. He says that “far too many pastors are afraid to talk about sex” with the consequence that “the church has allowed the culture to catechize its youth.” He cites a Southern Baptist who remembers that he never heard a sermon while growing up about sexual complementarity or “why my body is a good thing.” Mr. Dreher cites his own twenty-year experience as a Catholic and Orthodox that he has “yet to hear a sermon explaining in any depth what Christianity teaches about the human person and about the rightly ordered use of sex.” The experience of this reviewer in the Catholic Church is the same, and this reviewer wagers that it is the same for almost every reader of this essay. Without the positive evangelizing of the theological meaning and destiny of the human body, the challenging and elevated purpose of chastity, and the noble unifying of male and female in marriage, the Christian churches are left with a bunch of off-putting sexual “thou-shalt-not’s” (when they even say that).
Reviewers also ignore Chapter 3, which is all about the monks of Norcia, and why (and how) lay Christians can adapt some of their practices to strengthen our own spiritual lives outside the monastery.
Here is an excellent review written by Trappist Father Edmund Waldstein. It’s a highly personal reflection by a young Austrian priest-monk. Here’s how it begins:
One of the great sorrows that I encounter as a priest is the sorrow of parents whose children have abandoned the Faith. Their sorrow can be more bitter even than the sorrows of those parents who suffer the fata aspera of having to bury their children. To have given the gift of life, only to see that gift taken too soon, and to be able to give only the “unavailing gift” of funeral flowers, is a bitter fate indeed. But for those who have come to believe that true life is the eternal life of Christ, it is still more bitter to have brought a child to the waters of Baptism, hoping for that child to receive a share in the inheritance of infinite bliss, only to see that child trade the infinite good for the vain pomps of this world. If it were not for the hope of future repentance, this would be almost too much to bear. And yet, it is a sorrow that Christian parents have had to bear at all times. Children of believing parents have been abandoning the narrow way that leads to eternal life since the Church began. But the great falling away from the faith in Austria in the past five or six decades or so have given so many parents that sorrow. It is of course difficult to tell whether that is because hypermodern culture has actually led more children astray, or whether it has simply made straying more obvious— previous generations of worldly children were perhaps better at pretending to their parents that they were still in a state of grace. When I tell such parents that I come from a family of eight children they often ask me whether all of my brothers and sisters are still practicing Catholics. And when I answer affirmatively they invariably ask: “How did your parents do it?”
That question occurred to me again as I read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Dreher’s book is largely about the question of how parents can so live their lives that they can communicate the joy of life in Christ to their children. How can they avoid the pressures of a secular culture that seems ever more successful at drawing souls away? Dreher’s book made me reflect on my own experience, and so this review will have a somewhat autobiographical character. Readers who find such an intrusion of the autobiographical boastful or self-absorbed need read no further; they are unlikely to like Dreher’s book either, since he too illustrates his arguments from his own experience. My intention is not to hold up my own upbringing and family as an exemplar of perfection, nor to suggest that parents must do something similar to my parents if their children are to keep the faith— there are contrary examples— but simply to give an illustration of one possible answer to the question of how parents can help their children keep the Faith.
He then has a long theological and biographical digression, one that I found absorbing. And Father Waldstein can be a bit critical of the Ben Op, though mostly he’s favorable to it. I won’t try to sum up his comments, but I strongly encourage you to read them. He concludes:
Ian Ker is right that our time is the age of the ecclesial movements with their optimistic dynamism in engaging contemporary society. But it is also a time of revival of the ideals of monasticism. Ideals of stability, and rich liturgical tradition, and uncompromising contempt for the vanity and pomps of this passing world. And Rod Dreher is right that elements of those ideals can be realized outside the monastery in the life of Christian families. “The Benedict Option” will not ensure that children keep the faith— the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of grace cannot be controlled by any strategy— but if my upbringing can be called “Benedict Option,” then I do think that it can be a help.
In a comment on a review of The Benedict Option, Maclin Horton, once a co-editor of the now defunct Catholic counter-cultural magazine Caelum et Terra (and the subject of a profile in Dreher’s Crunchy Cons) wrote as follows:
… this discussion was being held twenty-five years ago in the pages of the magazine Caelum et Terra and other places. We must withdraw–but we must remain connected. We must turn off the TV–but we mustn’t turn our backs on the culture. We must form communities–but we mustn’t isolate ourselves. We must be critical of technology–but we should use it when appropriate. We must find ways of educating our children apart from the proselytizing secularism of the state school systems–but we must not be overprotective. Etc etc etc. All these things have actually been going on in places like Steubenville, Ohio. The children of those talkers and experimenters are grown now, and the results have been mixed. Those having this conversation with such fervor now seem to be younger, and I wonder whether most of you can quite grasp how bitterly sad it is to see a young man named John Paul or a young woman named Kateri denouncing Christian “homophobia” and “transphobia” on Facebook…
I don’t deny that the results of the attempt to achieve the balance of which Horton speaks in my own upbringing are mixed— as helpful grumblers are always reminding me. But at least this much is true: my parents have been spared the bitter sadness of seeing me and my brothers and sisters fall away from the Faith. Words fail me when I try to express how grateful I myself am for having received that gift and not (as yet) lost it: I have found in it the pearl of great price and the treasure buried in the field.