Again, I apologize to readers who find all this Benedict Option stuff wearying. This is publication week — book is in stores Tuesday March 14 — so you’re going to have to endure it. I’m going to post clips from a few of the latest reviews. I am traveling this week for the book, so don’t assume that my not engaging deeply with these critiques is a sign that I’m ignoring them. I just want to throw them out there for you readers interested in the Ben Op to consider.
Probably most confusion over Rod Dreher’s much-discussed The Benedict Option could be resolved with a careful read of the book’s subhead: “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Culture.” Not “the” strategy, but “a” strategy.
Do you need to adopt Dreher’s Orthodox convictions about the formative effects of liturgical worship? Not necessarily, though you’ll want to consider whether worshiping in a church that looks like a mall with music that sounds like Top 40 radio helps you develop counter-cultural spiritual instincts.
Do you need to homeschool your children or start a classical school, because “it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system,” as Dreher contends? Not necessarily, but you might be inspired as you learn about the schools profiled by Dreher, senior editor and prolific blogger at The American Conservative.
No, you don’t need to agree with all the details of Dreher’s strategy, dubbed the Benedict Option in honor of Benedict of Nursia (AD 480–547), the founder of Western monasticism. But you’ll remain confused if you don’t agree that some strategy is necessary for sustainable Christian mission in an increasingly post-Christian culture.
For all the details, Dreher’s message is simple: to be for the world we need to sometimes be away from the world. How can we testify to Jesus if we lose our faith in him amid cultural pressures? “We cannot give the world what we do not have,” Dreher writes. Or, to borrow from Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt. 5:13).
My main fear with Dreher’s book is that the people who need it most won’t read it. How do you convince Americans that replacing fast food and cable news with fasting and hard labor will be good for their souls?
Overwhelming evangelical support for Trump suggests not many conservative Christians would agree with Dreher that “losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul.” Rather, they seem to believe the American Empire needs our partisan politics in service of God’s kingdom. I’m afraid that evangelicals will continue to obsess over national politics instead of pursuing creative and communal local strategies for spiritual health and mission. Follow the example of crisis pregnancy centers, Dreher counsels:
Here’s how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the maintream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department.
Dreher would sell a lot more books if he proposed partisan politics as “the” strategy for Christians in a post-Christian era. But at least for Christians disabused by such failed promises, Dreher’s little way leads the right way.
Read the whole thing. Hansen thinks I missed the boat on a few matters.
Meanwhile, John Ehrett at Conciliar Post also offers a positive-but-mixed review. Excerpts:
The Benedict Option does so much so well that it’s hard to know where exactly to begin. In dissecting some of its more controversial elements further on in this review, I don’t want that recognition to be lost: this is an extraordinarily well-written book that says plenty of valuable things. It is because this book will be influential that I want to engage with it thoughtfully.
The Benedict Option reflects an amazingly detailed, affirmative vision for rebuilding Christian civil society. Dreher gets admirably specific, stressing at length the value of prayer, fasting, and family investment in the life of the local church. In the course of sketching such a vision, he also devotes extensive space to profiling Christian schools that couple rigorous academics with solid theological instruction. This discussion is one of the book’s best elements: I entirely agree with Dreher that the classical approach can be an effective counterweight to the pressures of modernity. In his words, “[c]lassical Christian education is the new counterculture.” He’s probably right. (173) As someone whose own primary, secondary, and tertiary education was heavily steeped in the classical tradition, I can personally attest to its enduring value. In making this point, Dreher critiques the incredible impoverishment of a life devoted solely to credentialing (building a child’s life around getting into the right college, and then the right job), and I can’t agree with him more. (166) My family never imposed such pressures on me, and for that I’m exceedingly grateful.
Nice. But here’s some criticism:
I question Dreher’s attempt to commingle this intellectual problem with his critique of modernity per se; it seems like a stretch to assume that most residents of past Christian cultures were fully versed in doctrine. There is a powerful tendency in some conservative quarters to dabble in a kind of retro-utopianism, which romanticizes the pre-modern past as an era of simplicity, faith, and community before the intellectual depredations of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. This tendency is dangerous. Let’s consider some negative features of the pre-modern past: routinely fatal childbirths; sky-high infant mortality rates; venal religious authorities more interested in serving secular power than serving God; widespread sales of indulgences to commoners who had no way of knowing whether they were deceived; widespread deaths from readily treatable illnesses; dispossession of property due to the lack of a developed “rule of law”; and so forth. I could go on (I haven’t even mentioned the usual evils—slavery, ubiquitous violence towards women, rape as a weapon of war, burning of religious dissidents—commonly cited in progressive accounts of history).
But I don’t assume that, and I regret it if I did not make that clear in the book. I do not believe that the past was a Golden Age — but neither do I believe the progressive/Whig view that we live in the best of all possible times. The Benedict Option does not argue that the Middle Ages was a relative utopia, or that ordinary believers were walking around with the Summa between their ears. What the premodern past, for all its problems, had was a belief in transcendent truth — specifically, a belief in the authority of the Bible and the Christian faith. This did not make the people perfect, but it did give them a framework to understand who they were and what they were to do. We have lost that in modernity, and have found nothing to replace it.
(Plus, it’s a fallacy to say that if you value indoor plumbing and modern dentistry, you must therefore deplore the Middle Ages, which did not have them.)
Here’s a good point from Ehrett:
Institutional decay is not limited to Christian churches: the phenomenon is widespread, and not even progressive juggernauts are immune. Journalism, for example, has been facing a professional crisis amid rising political polarization for the last decade, and university educations have been reduced to the level of consumer products. Dreher is rightly concerned about institutional delegitimization, but I think he assumes secular progressive institutions are comparatively stronger than they are.
In short, it seems that today’s American cultural landscape can’t really be reduced to Dreher’s dyadic view of “Christians and secularists.” Ours is instead a triadic age, where traditional Christians will increasingly find themselves out of sync with culturally progressive neoliberals and dissident right-wing populists. That’s an angle I wish The Benedict Option had probed more deeply.
That’s fair. In retrospect, I spent all of 2016 writing a book that looked like it would debut under a Clinton presidency. There was a mad scramble to rewrite when Donald Trump upended everyone’s expectations. I don’t at all believe that the Trump victory obviates the need for the Benedict Option. Rather, it complicates the narrative significantly, in a way that Ehrett (and Hansen) identify. I wish I had had time in the book’s production to probe this more deeply.
Also, from Ehrett:
And just as a side note, I tend to think that attributing American cultural decline exclusively to sexual license (including Internet pornography) is myopic. As the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Samuel James has noted, excessive video gaming often goes hand-in-hand with the sustained porn use Dreher notes (and one might even go further, connecting this kind of “psychosocial anesthetization” with the unfolding epidemic of drug abuse). There’s a real and distinctive malaise there, with a narrative that runs deeper than just “sex and technology are dangerous”: Charles Murray captured this well in Coming Apart, and I wish Dreher had dug a little deeper into the connectedness of these phenomena.
I don’t believe The Benedict Option does this, quite frankly. I talk openly in the book about how individualism and consumerism have helped bring us to this point. I do focus particularly on the Sexual Revolution, but explain in detail why it is so significant — indeed, the culmination of modernism. I wish I had quoted Augusto Del Noce in the book. That is my greatest regret about the book. From the TAC review of an English translation of his Crisis of Modernity (which was translated by this blog’s frequent commenter, Carlo Lancellotti):
Del Noce’s other early scholarship focused on the roots of fascist thought and its relationship to other ideologies. He methodically revealed the revolutionary spirit behind fascism and described its relationship to violence. Fascism, he argued, really grows out of communist ideology, and is one of several stages in the long process of Western secularization.
This—combined with the permissiveness, eroticism, and what Del Noce calls the “libertine philosophy” of the sexual revolution—has brought the West to ruin. “The question of eroticism is first of all metaphysical,” he argues. And it arises in the context of a de-sacralized West, “which today has manifested itself as never before.”
Tracing the origins of eroticism, Del Noce says the ideas of sexual freedom had already been fully formulated between 1920 and 1930, beginning with the anti-rationalist Surrealist writers and then further developed by Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). Reich died in an American prison, “almost completely forgotten,” Del Noce notes, “after having been condemned by the still moral United States.” But the “various beat and hippie movements then rediscovered him.”
Del Noce thus sees the countercultural revolution of the 1960s as the apotheosis of various long-dormant revolutionary strains. He elaborates: “The French ‘May Revolution’ was marked precisely by the hybridization of Marxian themes with Freudian themes and themes inspired by de Sade.” But he also faults the global entertainment industry and the arts, as well as the media and other powerful elites, for having participated in an aggressive “campaign of de-Christianization through eroticism.”
For the revolution against the transcendent to triumph, explains Lancellotti, “every meta-empirical order of truth” had to be abolished. Recreational sex replaced the truth of conjugal love. And the ideas of procreative sex and indissoluble monogamous marriage were destroyed since they presupposed, Del Noce says, “the idea of an objective order of unchangeable and permanent truths.”
Del Noce was clearly a highly astute observer of societal trends. But as Lancellotti points out, he also sought to understand “philosophical history”—which he insisted had to be understood given how profoundly affected the West had been by the philosophies of earlier centuries. Atheism, empiricism, historicism, materialism, rationalism, scientism, etc. had all led to the “elimination of the supernatural” and a “rejection of meta-historical truths.”
At the same time, Del Noce was a staunch critic of the modern West’s affluence, commercialism, and opulence. The loss of belief in the transcendent, he said, had produced a rootless society in which there was nothing to support beliefs in anything other than science and technology, entertainment and the erotic. And behind everything, as Del Noce demonstrated, is nihilism—and the rejection of the Incarnation itself. Thus, the crisis of modernity is really a crisis of spirituality.
There’s a lot more criticism in Ehrett’s excellent review, but I’m running out of time as I write this waiting for a flight. I hope you’ll read the whole thing. One more quote, and I’ll be done:
And building on Alan Jacobs’ charge above, I might suggest that “hard” Benedict Option proponents themselves should be wary of motivated reasoning. Proclaiming “all is lost, we must retreat” is, in a way, its own form of easy cultural surrender; “taking the Benedict Option” risks embracing a form of the comfortable and the familiar rather than going boldly forward in the prophetic tradition of the Church.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read—and read carefully—The Benedict Option. At a time when public conservative discourse seems to have devolved into either warmed-over Reaganism or veiled white nationalism, Dreher’s proposal is genuinely new, controversial, and revolutionary. The questions The Benedict Option raises are questions that all American Christians should be weighing, whether they realize it or not. And purely as a matter of aesthetics, this book is an excellent and highly compelling read.
Those seeking to articulate a traditional Christian witness in the face of today’s social and political unrest will face future challenges on not one, but two fronts: secular progressivism and populist identitarianism (consider the backlash Russell Moore faced from his own denomination upon boldly engaging issues of racial and religious discrimination). Confronting those challenges will exact a personal price.
To this, let me quote Collin Hansen: “For all the details, Dreher’s message is simple: to be for the world we need to sometimes be away from the world. How can we testify to Jesus if we lose our faith in him amid cultural pressures?”
Finally, here is an excerpt from a piece by the Evangelical writer Heather Walker Peterson:
For my own setting, my ears are deaf to accusations that Dreher is fearmongering regarding the loss of job and educational opportunities for conservative Christians. I work at an evangelical postsecondary institution, and among such universities we are currently planning for not if we lose our accreditation or our students become ineligible for state and federal loans but when in respect to our institutional stances on traditional sexual ethics.
When recent alums have talked to me about career aspirations as faculty in conservative Christian universities, I have praised their desires but told them that they may need to consider one of the parallel structures that Dreher writes about: Christian study centers near major public universities. Perhaps more shocking, a friend of mine is reconsidering his option to send his graduating high schooler to a prestigious evangelical institution because he’s concerned his child will have less job opportunities with that institution’s name on her resume.
Like many evangelical reviewers, my initial reaction to the idea of the Benedict Option, a “strategic withdrawal,” was that it smacked of the separatist, fundamentalist cultural ghettoization of my childhood, a bunker mentality. In the cultural wars, we lobbed critiques at contemporary thought with no regards for its grains of veracity or the individuals behind the ideas. We labeled social justice as “liberal” and focused on Bible studies instead. It seemed that truth, disregarding our limited interpretations of it, was more important than love.
Can the Benedict Option be different? How do proponents, as a church, community, or other organization, not relive the sins of the fundamentalist movement that began in the 1920s?
That’s a great question. I’ve been told by some Evangelical friends that the reason so many Evangelicals have an instinctive aversion to the Benedict Option concept is because they are either ex-fundamentalists or only one generation removed from fundamentalism. Superficially, the Benedict Option sounds like fundamentalism — therefore, they want to stay away from it.
But as Peterson indicates, just because we don’t want to relive the fundamentalist experience, that doesn’t make the challenges post-Christian America puts to the church go away. Working out how to do the Benedict Option without becoming bunkered-and-hunkered fundamentalists (even of the Catholic/Orthodox variety) is going to require us small-o orthodox Christians to be creative minorities.
The Benedict Option is out in stores tomorrow, or you can order it here. I don’t expect you will agree with everything in it, but I hope it inspires critical thinking within the church at this watershed moment in Western life.