The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, $34, 262 pages)
Journalist Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is a rarity: a socially conservative book urging Christians be more faithful that spurred a serious discussion in the mainstream media among pundits about the future of the so-called Religious Right and those who comprise it. David Brooks of the New York Times called it the most important religious book of the decade.” It also spurred a not-so-serious discussion, with much mischaracterizing of Dreher’s thesis. After reading literally tens of thousands of words written about The Benedict Option, I had to read Dreher’s work twice to make sure I understood what he was really saying rather than reacting to the caricature of what he wrote, and I’m not entirely sure I have succeeded. That’s not an indictment of his book, but rather the complexity and vastness of the subject, and the state of criticism and commentary today. So here goes my best shot.
A common but probably mistaken reading of The Benedict Option, an idea Dreher has been developing for some time, is that the author is calling the faithful to drop out of society and retrench to their own (religious) communities. Christine Rosen, writing in the conservative Jewish journal Commentary, said Dreher is arguing, “the only available option is now willing exile, and if you are to join the exiles, the path will be challenging.” That is typical of the criticism The Benedict Option has had from both the Left and Right, and not entirely unfairly. The problem is that Dreher has written a book that very much seems to say precisely that. Indeed, in his introduction he says that people who follow his advice on how to live “will have to be somewhat cut off from mainstream society for the sake of holding on to the truth.”
The truth Dreher wants us to hold on to is orthodox Christianity. He sees attacks upon truth everywhere, especially in the sexual and technological revolutions of the past half century, but also from aggressive cosmopolitanism and socialist economics. As Dreher says, the political, media, academic, and entertainment establishments relentlessly push feminism, the gay agenda, abortion-on-demand, and other pet issues upon the citizenry and too many Christians accept these modern values rather than those of the Bible. Dreher writes, “we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it.” The Benedict Option is at its best detailing the barbarism and tracing the centuries-old historical roots of these problems right up to recent Supreme Court decisions codifying immorality into law.
While Dreher outlines the serious moral decadence of our times, he warns, “believers must avoid the usual trap of thinking that politics can solve cultural and religious problems.” This is an example of stating the obvious and problematically inclining readers to the wrong conclusion. Dreher reports on the rise of the Moral Majority and its political successes (helping elect Ronald Reagan, for example) coincided with the rapid deterioration of moral standards. Is the lesson really that politics made no difference? Would things have been better if faithful Christians dropped out of politics entirely?
And yet, Dreher is not wrong. Politics is not the sole answer to the moral decadence of our times; Christ is.
Dreher calls for something akin to a return to the monastic example of the sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict and how to build community. What he is less clear about is noting that 15 centuries ago the Benedictine monks sought to preserve Christian culture so that someday it could evangelize and restore the broader culture. Dreher does not make that clear or even suggest it would be possible to re-engage someday.
Furthermore, disengagement cedes the public square to those hostile to Christian orthodoxy and virtues, allowing them to impose their radical agenda on those who do not leave state-run schools and pop culture behind. As Fr. Alphonse de Valk, erstwhile editor of Catholic Insight used to remind us, we don’t fight only to save the souls of our own kin, but to protect the virtue of all of God’s children whether or not they know they are God’s children. We cannot willfully cede ground to the rapacious ideologues who are not going to give up until everyone bends to their agenda.
The Benedict option makes sense if practiced in moderation. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first (and only) ambassador for the office of religious freedom, told the Catholic Civil Rights League annual dinner this year that Christians can take time to recollect: teach our children the basics of our faith, equip them with good polemics so they can evangelize, and then insist that our voice be respectfully heard within the public square (with the right to persuade others and win arguments). The Benedict option is not a retreat or a defensive posture, but a time to reload for a moral offensive against a thoroughly corrupt culture. Strengthening our communities will be a temporary fortification to protect ourselves and our families, but it is nothing less than selfish to allow decadence to victimize the non-believers or those who for whatever reason, retreat to the Benedict option themselves.
Dreher’s advice to Protestants, Catholics, and eastern Orthodox is good as far as it goes: develop new healthy communities of shared Biblical values, reenergize family life, rebuild meaningful education that passes on a deep reservoir of cultural memory, and the passing on of sound religious faith to our children. He provides examples of usually small cloistered communities that achieve this in a chapter titled “The idea of a Christian village,” in many cases providing examples from existing religious communities. It is not obvious that they are all scalable. To his credit, Dreher does not pretend it will be easy.
Dreher concludes the book relating a conversation with a pastor friend who reminded him that if the Benedict Option was to be successful, it must be about communion – a living relationship with Christ and human relationships for Christ. It could not be about self-improvement or fixing the Church or solving worldly problems. And it is precisely with this understanding that Dreher answers his critics that he is calling for a disengagement by Christians. The Benedict option directs the Christian to the proper posture in the public square: to “live liturgically” by praying, fasting, feasting, marrying, teaching, learning, working, and playing as devout Christians who appreciate that God’s teaching is for our lives, not merely our religious lives. And to do so, as W.H. Auden wrote, staggering onward rejoicing. We are imperfect. Our culture is worse. Dreher’s advice is familiar: get our own houses in order so we can become salt and light in the world.
The Benedict Option is not necessarily persuasive in making the case that sheltered communities are a necessary precondition for overcoming the barbarism that surrounds us. However, it is convincing that we must be fully and completely Christian before we can do anything to change that culture.
Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim.