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.
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.
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.