Arts & Culture & Public Square

The Benedict Option: Valid Call to Spiritual Renewal; Dangerous Rx for the Church to Retreat

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“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)

In his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher suggests that American Christians should look back to the sixth-century monastic order to find a model that will help us survive life in a post-Christian society. Prior to the book’s release, I listened to the discussions about the “Benedict Option” with mixed interest. While some aspects of the book sounded intriguing, others sounded biblically unorthodox.

As one writer suggests, the “Benedict Option…has proven to be a Rorschach test: everyone seems to see something different in it.”  Maybe because of this, I and others have eagerly awaited the release of Dreher’s book. We hoped we would find a more complete explanation of his vision for living the Christian life.

A Flawed Foundation

New York Times columnist David Brooks, has called this book “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” (If you want to learn more about the book, read one of the excellent reviews by Collin Hansen, Karen Swallow Prior, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig or Jake Meador.) While it has received a good deal of buzz, I would have to disagree that it’s the “most important religious book of the decade.”

The Benedict Option does raise a number of issues about faith and culture that are worth discussing, but after a more detailed look at his manifesto, I still have concerns. For example, his analysis of historical events and his assessment of Christians in the 21st century are significantly flawed. As a result, he lacks the solid foundation necessary to sustain his argument in the rest of the book.

I had the most trouble with the first two chapters of the book. In them, Dreher sketches the historical and philosophical forces that have shaped today’s culture, which he describes as growing increasingly hostile to Christianity and religious liberty. Dreher argues that we are being swept away by the culture of this secular age. For we are “as much creatures of our own time as secular people are”. In my opinion, his bleak picture of American Christians today is exaggerated.

Dreher goes on to argue that the majority of 21st-century Christians are only nominal Christians holding to a creed of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, while in contrast, believers in the Middle Ages held to a stronger Christian orthodox worldview. He writes,

Christians of the Middle Ages took Paul’s words recorded in Acts—“in Him we live and move and have our being”—and in his letter to the Colossians—“he is before all things and in Him all things hold together”—in a much more literal sense that we do. Medieval man did not see himself as fundamentally separate from the natural order; rather, the alienation he felt was an effect of the Fall, a catastrophe that, as he understood it, made it difficult for humans to see Creation as it really is…Truth was guaranteed by the existence of God, whose Logos, the divine principle of order, was made fully manifest in Jesus Christ but is present to some degree in all Creation.

Just as Dreher’s picture of Christians today is too bleak, this depiction of believers in the Middle Ages is too rosy. There may have been a thousand Christians in Europe that believed what Dreher suggests above, but not many more. Most church-goers of that era could not even read Paul’s letters. If they even had access to a Bible, that Bible would have been written in Latin. The reality was that most medieval congregations could not even read. Services in the medieval church were conducted in Latin as well. I would submit that most of the “medieval Christians” Dreher describes consisted of a small group of educated priests within an unhealthy, powerful, and, at that time, corrupt church.

In contrast, there are millions of believers today who, while imperfect, cling to an orthodox Christian faith and are living out their lives in ways that bring glory to God and serve the common good. These believers should be encouraged to be more engaged in the world around them for the sake of the gospel, not given a plan for strategic withdrawal.

Valid Rules for Christian Living

Central to The Benedict Option and the section I enjoyed most is in the third chapter. Dreher sets fourth eight principles drawn from the St. Benedict Rules on order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance. These timeless principles flow from one another and are drawn from the scriptures. One can make a strong argument that a more robust use of these principles would be a great blessing for believers today.

Dreher goes on to explain how the eight principles should be applied to politics, churches, local communities, educational institutions, workplaces, families, and technology in our world today.

Generally, this part of the book was a real mixed bag. As a strong proponent of homeschooling and Christian schools, I found the chapter on education encouraging. Yet, I found the chapter on politics and Dreher’s call to virtually abandon the national political process disheartening.

A Dangerous Retreat of the Church

Overall, it seems that Dreher underestimates the positive impact Christians have had in the public square to promote human flourishing and seek justice for the weak, vulnerable, and oppressed. Could he be leaning more heavily on the caricatures of evangelical involvement painted by the media? Has he truly weighed the negative impact of the withdrawal of Christians from the public square?

Most of Dreher’s recommended principles for Christian living are good, but is strategic withdrawal, whether physical or social, necessary to pursue them? Can we grow spiritually and remain engaged at the same time? Christians need to continue to seek the “prosperity of the city” (Jer. 29:7) and be the Daniels of our day, across all sectors of society.

I appreciate the spirit of Dreher’s vision of renewal in the church, but I am concerned that his remedy would lead to isolationism and possibly increase the world’s perception of the irrelevance of the church, even if unintended. Because of the dangers of these potential consequences, I cannot endorse The Benedict Option.

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