In a refreshingly honest moment on page 142 of The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher quotes Leah Libresco Sargent saying,
“People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, “Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!’ But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.”
Leaving aside the fact that I’ve never in my life heard the word koan before, this captures my ambivalence about Rod Dreher’s blockbuster new book better than anything. With all the buzz surrounding the book, I opened my review copy with some excitement and trepidation, but the more I kept reading, the more mystified I became what all the fuss was about. Fans and foes alike seemed to been taken in by the publishing event into thinking that something earthshaking was afoot.
But when you look at the forty-seven (or forty-three) concrete proposals that make up Dreher’s blueprint for the Benedict Option, you find instead a primer on thoughtful Christian discipleship. Dreher encourages churches to pay attention to their history, relearn liturgical rhythms, work together with other local congregations, and try to live as real communities. He encourages parents to put God at the center of their families’ lives, enforce moral norms, and think about who their kids are hanging out with. He proclaims the importance of Christian education, of Christian sexual morality, and of a Christian sense of work as vocation. In light of proposals such as these, one is forced to wonder just what is motivating the Christian intellectuals who contemptuously dismissed the book. Not only are most of these proposals simply mere Christianity, but a good number are mere common sense (for instance, “Think about your kids’ peer groups”; “don’t give your kids smartphones”; “don’t use social media in worship”; “fight pornography aggressively”). Now, to be sure, just because something is common sense does not mean it is necessarily common; in a world gone mad, stating the obvious can come across as revolutionary. But I really do think we all need to settle down and realize how ordinary and obvious most of the proposals in The Benedict Option really are.
Of course, the book itself does not claim to be terribly original; in fact, the majority of it is taken up recounting the stories and testimonies of those who have already been putting these various proposals into practice. Indeed, I myself am blessed to live in a community that has been doing its best for a quarter century to put the vast majority of them into practice, a community which Dreher strangely omits to discuss in his book (though its experience should also serve as a warning to anyone who thinks these proposals are a panacea; we have problems by the bucketload here too).
Indeed, it would be fair to say that the Benedict Option is not really particularly Benedictine (more on this later) nor is it really an option; it is a mandate. The fact that Dreher felt compelled to brand it as he did is perhaps as dreary a commentary on the state of American Christianity as any of the prophetic laments that appear in the book. Leah Sargent is right; we are a culture completely habituated by marketing, and if you want people to practice Christianity, you’ve got to market it, and “Benedict Option” sounds like a cool retro communitarian lifestyle choice. In my more cynical moments, I wonder: for Christians who are so caught up in consumerism and individualism to recognize the mandates of the Gospel, is repackaging them with shiny shrink-wrap really going to help that much?
But in my less cynical moments, I recognize that often it is the most obvious truths that most frequently need restating, and I am glad that someone with Rod Dreher’s high profile and wide following has taken upon himself to so eloquently restate them in a way that speaks so forcefully to the need of our times. Indeed, given the timelessness of most of these mandates, Dreher deserves praise for his effort regardless of whether or not you think he has rightly read the need of our times. Still, most of the criticism of the book has focused on this question, and reasonably so, given how emphatically Dreher frames the Benedict Option as a response to a crisis, an ark to board in the deluge that is upon us.
“Today we can see that we’ve lost on every front and that the swift and relentless currents of secularism have overwhelmed our flimsy barriers … Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to … stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.” (9, 12).
The Nature of our Crisis
So let us ask the question that everyone is arguing about: are things really that bad? On the central issue Dreher is concerned about—the place of Christian faith in public life—I think the only realistic answer is “Yes,” more or less. To be sure, values voters still have substantial influence in American politics (though 2016 showed that the Moral Majority is neither moral nor a majority anymore), and Christians enjoy extraordinary freedom and influence compared to most non-Christendom societies in the past. Still, to any sober observer, the handwriting is on the wall. America is being balkanized into sectors of aggressive take-no-prisoners progressives, angry blood-and-soil nationalists, and “don’t tread on me” libertarians, none of whom have much patience with the old-fashioned ideas of moral order, community, and ordered liberty that have been the hallmark of historic Christianity and the governments influenced by it. As the father of three young children, I share Dreher’s concerns about just how inhospitable the culture and its institutions have become to raising kids who can enter adulthood with a shred of decency and discipline. I also have little doubt that by the time they are seeking to pursue their vocations, they will find many lines of work closed to anyone who wants faithfully follow Christ. Do I think they will be thrown to the lions? No, and I hate the overuse of the word “persecution” as much as anyone. But Dreher is surely right when he calls for a new imaginative entrepreneurship among Christians that will create economic opportunities for believers as they are increasingly denied such opportunities by a hostile society.
Still, on the broader issue of just how convinced we should be that civilization is crumbling and we must run to the hills, I think that Dreher is simultaneously perhaps too optimistic and too pessimistic.
I say “too optimistic,” since it seems to me that Dreher entirely fails to mention the three looming perils facing Western civilization that are perhaps every bit as consequential as Christianity’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” from the public square. These are:
- the rapid collapse of faith in public institutions and truth-claims that threatens to reduce our society to a Hobbesian war of all against all, or at least to render us unable to engage in public deliberation or to take any preventative actions against crises natural or man-made.
- The looming specter of the rapid automation of many fields of work that threatens a situation of mass unemployment and spiralling inequality for which our political and economic institutions are not adapted, and will not have time to adapt.
- The likelihood of high-impact climate change, and the severe ecological, economic, demographic, and political disruptions that it is liable to engender if not dramatically slowed.
Of course, Dreher is not trying to write a book about everything, and he has been accused of being a Cassandra as it is. But any attempt to discern the future of our society , the perils that facing it, and the kinds of actions Christians must take in response is surely incomplete without taking these developments into account. Collectively, these three crises do threaten a civilizational reversal on par with what 5th– and 6th-century inhabitants of Western Europe experienced.
As it is, however, by confining his attention to the moral and spiritual decay of Western civilization, Dreher renders his appeal to the example of St. Benedict quite puzzling, as Doug Wilson notes in his review. If what we are up against is an aggressively secular culture driving Christians to the margins and devoting itself to the worship of Pleasure, its sounds like what we need is the Polycarp Option, not the Benedict Option (and to his credit, Dreher does mention the example of Polycarp.) First-century Christians faced a robust but godless civilization and political institutions, institutions that did a pretty decent job of holding the temporal order together, despite their deep moral corruption, but which excluded Christians from positions of influence and sometimes cruelly persecuted them. Sixth-century Christians faced a crumbling civilization, a vacuum of political power, but one in which Christianity was broadly accepted, if not always faithfully practiced. On the face of it at least, there is a rather stark discontinuity between the crisis that Dreher describes—triumphant secularism—and the historical analogue he invokes—civilizational collapse.
This is the more puzzling inasmuch as Dreher is not really calling for monastic retreat, which was Benedict’s solution to the chaos of 6th-century Italy. Dreher does not even want us all to become Catholic or Orthodox, much less enter monastic orders. Nor is he even calling for anything as radical or concrete as the “New Monasticism” movement that was in vogue a few years ago. The virtues of Benedictine monks that he calls us to imitate may find their fullest expression in monasticism, but again, they can be, and should be, basic Christian practices: order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, balance.
So which is our situation: are we Christians called to sustain communities of faithful witness within a powerful but hostile Empire for decades and centuries to come, or are we called to establish havens of order and virtue in the chaotic ruins of a collapsed civilization until we can rebuild strong cultural and political institutions?
The Role of Politics
The ambiguity is a serious one, not so much for the practices Dreher recommends for building and sustaining Christian community (which would be valuable in either case) but for the whole side of things he doesn’t really discuss—how Christians should continue to engage the cultural and political institutions above us and around us. Here, one cannot help but feel that Dreher’s book needs complementing with James Davison Hunter’s more sanguine To Change the World (just as Hunter’s book needs complementing with Dreher’s more sober assessment).
Dreher plays down the importance of politics in his book, and indeed has been read as advocating a total Christian withdrawal from politics. This is an unfair assessment; in his lament over the failures and idolatries of Religious Right politics, he says nothing but what many others, including Hunter, have acknowledged, and he is surely right that the Trump phenomenon will either prove a Pyrrhic victory for evangelicals, or, best case, a rearguard action that buys us a brief respite on certain fronts. And far from full-scale withdrawal, Dreher exhorts us,
“The real question facing us is not whether to quit politics entirely, but how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity—and when is it corrupting to be complicit? Donald Trump tore up the political rule book in every way. Faithful conservative Christians cannot rely unreflectively on habits learned over the past thirty years of political engagement. The times require much more wisdom and subtlety for belivers entering the political fray.” (83)
Who could disagree with that? However, to be fair to the critics, Dreher has precious little to say about what “exercising political power prudently” might look like, aside from a list of six very worthy suggestions he borrows from Kansas political leader Lance Kinzer on p. 87. Most of the book is dedicated to filling out a vision of what he calls, following anti-communist Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, “anti-political politics,” the kind of politics that a “powerless, despised minority” must embrace (91). This is not, Dreher is clear, “a retreat to a Christian ghetto.” Rather, he quotes Vaclav Benda that the “parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for ‘the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word’ . . . “In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them” (93-94). These lines should be proof enough that many of the most frequent criticisms of Dreher are based entirely on caricatures. Still, aside from insisting that these morally disciplined Benedict Option communities will necessarily prove a blessing to the undisciplined society around them, Dreher does very little to explore how the “anti-politics” of alternative community-building relates to the positive politics of loving our non-Christian neighbors through our actions in the town hall or the halls of Congress, or for that matter in the elite culture-making institutions that Hunter so emphasizes in To Change the World.
This question is more urgent for us than it is for anti-communist dissidents because we do not live under a closed totalitarian system—certainly not yet. Faithful Christians in positions of cultural and political influence in the West must work in an environment of growing hostility, and are even beginning to find doors closing in their faces. But most of the doors are still open, and although it may get harder and harder to push through them, Christians still have a duty to serve in these vocations—as lawmakers and lawyers, teachers and writers, police officers and governors, businessmen and philanthropists—as long as they have opportunity to do so. Dreher offers precious little guidance for them.
It is here, though, where I think Dreher and Hunter—the Benedict Option and Faithful Presence—can prove to be complementary models, rather than rival alternatives. Either on its own is insufficient. Hunter’s concept of faithful presence is naïve to the extent that it thinks that Christians can readily infiltrate positions of elite culture-making influence without losing their souls; he offers us presence, but will it be faithful? Dreher’s Benedict Option is sterile to the extent that encourages the formation of communities for the cultivation of faithful citizens who have no idea how to be present. What we need is a fleshing out of how we might put the two concepts together.
Faithful Christian discipleship is always hard. It is especially hard in a culture determined to form its members in ways antithetical to the call of the Gospel. And it is extremely hard in a position of power and influence, where greed, ambition, and cowardice can corrupt all but the hardiest soldiers of Christ. This is precisely why we need Christian communities formed along the lines that The Benedict Option sketches. Without strong church communities organized around serious worship, theological depth, hospitality and mutual service, we will not be able to produce the kinds of Christians who can be faithfully present in Caesar’s household, nor provide them an anchor to sustain them through the tempests and temptations they will encounter there. Without Christian parents determined to raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, rather than the materialistic mores of late capitalist modernity, our children will not stand a chance when we send them into the front lines of battle, but will defect to Satan’s well-fed and well-entertained horde. Without a rigorous classical and Christian education that trains the next generation the Word of God, how to think, and where they are in history, they will not be shapers, but shapees, of culture. Unless we create sub-cultures in church, home, and school where sexual desires are disciplined and oriented toward their glorious God-given ends, the next wave of culture warriors will melt away before they even reach the fray, seduced along the way by a thousand fleshly enticements. And unless we thoughtfully and critically evaluate our work and our technology by the standard of what builds Christ’s kingdom and builds up our neighbor, not by what helps build our dream home and lifestyle of convenience, we could have the whole machinery of culture-making at our disposal and would convert to an engine of destruction.
In short, by all means Christians must heed Dreher’s call to rebuild communities of virtue anchored in faith and history, but the monastic metaphor must be complemented with a complemented with a missionary one. Persecution may come, but let it come as a response to stubborn, unflagging infiltration and witness:
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:16-20)