An Evangelical’s Take on The Benedict Option

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Most books that are published come and go with only a narrow impact. Some, however, remain in the cultural dialogue much longer and become a platform for constructive conversation. Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is in the latter category, and has received much attention in recent months.

Dreher’s book, subtitled “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” emerges from years of blogging and speaking around the thesis that the cultural milieu of the United States is so shaped by secularism, modernism and consumerism that meaningful discipleship necessitates radically countercultural living. The book’s title comes from the sixth-century St. Benedict, whose famous monastic Rule is interpreted by Dreher as a guide for Christians today.

The book begins with an assessment of “post-Christian America” and a brief intellectual history in which Dreher outlines some of the philosophical and cultural movements that have shifted Western culture over the last seven centuries. Dreher admits that his history only skims the surface. Even so, he chronicles well how these developments in Western thought have challenged the Christian worldview and made historic truths less believable for each generation. This chapter is one of the significant contributions of The Benedict Option. For many in this generation, our neophilia blinds us to the reality that our ideas are shaped by the values and epistemology we inherit. Dreher helpfully connects the dots by looking to these events:

In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality

The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy

The Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760-1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The Sexual Revolution (1960-present)

Much more discussion can and should be had about the intellectual frameworks shaping American culture. This chapter was my favorite in the book and the one I’ve referenced most in conversation.

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Benedict of Nursia

The heart of the book is a chapter on Benedict’s Rule. Dreher explains how practices in the Rule of St. Benedict can help modern Christians recover, maintain, and pass on a robust Christian faith. The practices highlighted in the book are Order, Prayer, Work, Asceticism, Stability, Community, Hospitality, and Balance. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Dreher implores Christians of all stripes to structure their lives around these ancient practices. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), America’s nefarious “Christianity-lite,” is a primary target of Dreher’s critique. The embrace of MTD stems from a lack of Christian discipleship, thus making the practices of St. Benedict all the more important.

The rest of the book applies Benedict’s Rule to different areas of life including politics, education, sex, and technology. The practical suggestions are helpful, if a little one-size-fits-all. The real meat, however, comes in the stories of people living the Benedict Option. Dreher offers glimpses of communities from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian traditions living some form of the Benedict Option.

In another book I’m reading (The Tech-Wise Family), author Andy Crouch offers suggestions on the use of technology with the caveat, “You don’t have to become Amish, but you probably have to become closer to Amish than you think.” I imagine Rod Dreher saying something similar, “You don’t have to become monastic, but you probably have to become closer to monastic than you think.” Dreher’s Benedict Option has been criticized by some as too extreme, but he argues that serious threats to the Christian faith demand radical countercultural living.

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Rod Dreher, senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative and author of The Benedict Option

But are the threats that serious? Or are Rod Dreher and his conservative cadre just stoking fear? Many have been quick to denounce The Benedict Option as a fundamentalist head-for-the-hills reaction to a changing country and a loss of political power. In a Washington Post piece that evidences little knowledge of the book’s contents, Dreher and his interlocutors are accused of promoting a “new alarmism.”

I’m optimistic about the amount of conversation The Benedict Option has generated, yet the number of critics commenting on a misreading (or perhaps commenting without reading?) continues to grow. Andy Crouch’s delineation of Dreher’s thesis from the most common misreading is helpful. Archbishop Charles Chaput has written a book like The Benedict Option from a Catholic perspective and argues, “Naming the problems in a culture truthfully, and pointing a way forward for those awake enough to notice, is neither bleak nor negative. It’s called Christian realism, and it’s a virus that’s going around.”

The evangelical fear that Christians will retreat from culture is understandable. Our tradition is deeply rooted bringing the gospel to bear on the issues of the day. And yet, how can a church subsumed by modernity offer meaningful critique of culture? Prophetic critique requires that a better reality be inaugurated and lived among the people of God.

The Benedict Option calls Christians to deepen our discipleship so that we can be the church for the world. Christian mission that disciples nonbelievers into MTD is thoroughly non-Christian. Only by taking hold of the radical self-denying, God-exalting, neighbor-embracing call of Christianity will we continue to “turn the world upside down” (examples of this can be seen in many flourishing churches across the Global South that preach historically orthodox Christianity). The Benedict Option’s proposal of a life oriented around early Christian practices is a welcome correction for today’s evangelicals.

It would be easy for readers to critique Dreher’s Benedict Option prescriptions without engaging the book’s central issue. The most fruitful discussions of this work will be those that take seriously the challenges of modernity and begin to offer contextualized responses. If The Benedict Option awakens Western Christians to the core issues at hand for the future of a robust Christian faith, the book will have served the Church well.

Preach

 

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There’s a new Gallup poll out on what makes people go to Church, according to Christianity Today, and it’s kind of awesome. The number one reason why folks go to church is to hear sermons about Scripture. 82% of Protestants cited a rigorous exposition of Scripture as what draws them to Church. I say “kind of awesome” because the best answer would be “I go because she is the body of Christ and we love her and want to build her up” but I imagine that answer wasn’t an option on the Gallup poll.

Here’s the money paragraph from the article.

Last year, Ed Stetzer cited several examples of congregations (such as Oklahoma megachurch Life.Church) that shifted toward more rigorous teaching once they noticed interest from the unchurched: “In other words, those for whom sermons were being dumbed down aren’t dumb. They are interested in the truth or else they’d be out golfing.”

I’ve long believed that churches, evangelicals in particular, make things far too easy on folks in the pews by “contextualizing” things in such a way that it’s impossible to distinguish from the wider culture. This survey shows that is a mistake. Here’s to more rigorous teaching and more demanding church going that holds a certain finger to the way culture does things and is her faithful self in serving our Lord.  

Being a Christian Under Trump

Though I have not yet had the chance to read Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Optionit sounds like it is a thoughtful work on how Christians should handle themselves in a society that would elect, say, a Donald J. Trump to run the country. It has been getting a good deal of attention—I count no less than 15 recent articles or reviews of it from Real Clear Religion in the last two months.  Scot McKnight has a fine summary on its major proposals today on his blog. I was struck by this: The forces of dissolution from popular culture are too great for individuals or families to resist on their own. We need to embed ourselves in stable communities of faith.41QY+zZAzfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m all in on that. McKnight says that the practices Dreher attaches to his Benedict Option mainly stem for the Catholic Virtue Ethics tradition. Again, I’m all in on that. Here’s a couple that resonated with me in particular taken directly from McKnight’s blog:

  1.  Order. If a defining characteristic of the modern world is disorder, then the most fundamental act of resistance is to establish order. If we don’t have internal order, we will be controlled by our human passions and by the powerful outside forces who are in greater control of directing liquid modernity’s deep currents.

This means the discovery of the order, the logos, that God has written into the nature of Creation and seeking to live in harmony with it. … To order the world rightly as Christians requires regarding all things as pointing to Christ. …

2.  Work. This is how we must approach our jobs: as opportunities to glorify God. More deeply, Benedictines view their work as an expression of love and stewardship of the community and as a way of reordering the natural world in harmon with God’s will. For the Christian, work has sacramental value. 61

3.  Hospitality. According to the Rule, we must never turn away someone who needs our love. A church or other Benedict Option community must be open to the world, to share the bounty of God’s love with those who lack it. 72