I’ve just finished reading “The Benedict Option” by Rod Dreher. The book came out about a year and a half ago and was quite a sensation in many Christian circles. New York Times writer David Brooks is quoted on the cover of my second edition as saying it is, “The most discussed and most important religious book of the decade,” though I’m not sure David Brooks’ accolade is much of a recommendation.
Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. His Wikipedia biography is here. Born in 1967, he was raised a Methodist, became a Roman Catholic in 1993, and switched to Eastern Orthodox in 2006.
I’m glad I waited for the initial sensation to die down before reading the book. The version I read was published a year later than the first and includes a foreword that is mostly a smash at Donald Trump and the Christians who supported him. It is offensive and infuriating. He writes, “Christians are arguably worse off than they would have been under Hillary.” This sort of grandstanding seems to be calculated at rekindling some of the attention from the elite he got when the book first came out. It is shallow vanity – “Look at me! Ain’t I cool and hip?”
Still, I think I gave the book a fair reading. And much of it is valuable.
He is calling on Christians to become more faithful and assertive – to actually be the light and the salt. This resonates with me because both Nancy and I were repelled by the church because of the hypocrisy we witnessed as young people. As someone has said, the problem with Christianity are the Christians. God didn’t give up on us, though, and after many years we found a church that lives out the faith every day of the week.
Dreher takes the Benedictine monks as a model and tries to apply the rules of St. Benedict to the modern American Christian community. I won’t reiterate all of the steps he advocates, but some of the ones he emphasizes include:
Recovering the foundations of Christianity, especially earlier writers and theologians – their struggles, their dealings with false teachings and heretics, and especially the liturgy developed over many centuries. He believes we have lost the sense of the sacred and the holy in our modern churches in favor of entertainment. Jesus has become our best buddy instead of the incarnate God who created the entire universe.
Renewing church discipline. The hypocrisy we witnessed as youth should not have been allowed within the church. While we rant against the sin of homosexuality, we gladly overlook the sins of adultery, pre-marital sex, covetousness, gossip, and many others. We too easily quote the “judge not” passages, but completely ignore the Apostle Paul’s admonition, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). We absolutely must judge and discipline believers who are in error and bring shame to our churches. Disciples are by definition disciplined.
Protecting and teaching our children. Whether in the public schools, using social media, or playing with their peers, our children are constantly bombarded with secular, materialistic, and sex-obsessed messages and pressure to conform. Dreher spends more time on this than with any other subject. He says the home should be a mini-monastery with regularly scheduled meals, prayer, and service, and children witnessing their parents living a Godly life every day of the week.
Christian Community. Physical proximity helps reinforce Christian values. Raising children, Dreher says, does indeed “take a village,” but the village is not the government, as Hillary Clinton supposes, but other adults and children with shared values. There is also a benefit to living close to the church of your choice and making that church the center of the community. He uses the model of Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods surrounding the synagogue and school as an example.
Education. Speaking of schools, Dreher urges us to pull our children out of public schools, and even secular private schools. Schools have become propaganda centers for the post-modern secular society. Even many Christian schools conform to that curriculum with a dab of prayer and Scripture on top. He calls for the creation of “classical Christian” schools that emphasize Scripture and Western civilization. The idea is to teach wisdom and values that have withstood the test of time, rather than mere job training. If a classical Christian school is not available, then home school your kids. There are many homeschooling models and resources available today, including blended models, which merge homeschooling with more formal classes for specialized subjects. (A personal plug here. My son and daughter-in-law in Richmond send their four children to the Veritas School there http://veritasschool.com . It is fabulous and they live in walking distance)
Christian Sexuality. This may be the most controversial part of the book, given how rampant is the “anything goes” ethos of the late sexual revolution. But Dreher says, “There is no core teaching of the Christian faith that is less popular today and perhaps none that is more important to obey.” From the earliest days of the Church, sexual values have been foundational to the faith and revolutionary to the rest of society. The idea that sex is to be confined to one man and one woman in state of lifelong marriage, was absolutely contrary to everything the ancients were doing. The other cultures were awash in polygamy, prostitution, pedophilia, and homosexuality. Women were mere commodities and infanticide of female babies was commonplace. I wrote about this for the Federalist a few years ago. Christianity applied the same standard of sexual morality to both men and women and elevated the role of women in society.
Christians have failed to boldly engage the culture on these issues. We have been so focused on being “nice people” so afraid of offending that we seem to offer nothing but moralizing and hypocrisy. Small wonder we aren’t taken seriously.
While these are all valuable steps, I don’t know what they have to do with the Benedictine monks. They are instead available to any and all faithful Christians. Indeed, much of this is already in practice in the town I live in, and has been for many years. Now he also cites some things that seem to be more unique to the Benedictines – asceticism, embracing exile and martyrdom, conducting hard labor – but these are not essential to building a robust Christian community, and are based on an overwrought and defeatist vision he has of 21st Century America. His emphasis on hard labor assumes that the professions will soon be closed off to faithful Christians. Martyrdom assumes that we will be violently persecuted. It is romanticizing ancient Christians to suggest they “embraced” martyrdom. Yes, they accepted it when it was the only option to rejecting Jesus, but I hardly think they went looking for it. Asceticism may have some value in an individual’s spiritual journey, but Paul cautioned the Colossians against making it an article of faith (Col 2: 16-23).
Dreher’s admiration for the Benedictines comes out of a dismal and gloomy view he has of current conditions. Certainly Christianity is being challenged everywhere we turn, but it is nothing that we haven’t faced before. If your reference point is the 1950s church, we have indeed lost a lot, but that was an extraordinary time. The church flourished in the face of the existential threat from “Godless Communism.” Being a Christian became an expectation for virtually all Americans, many of whom joined the church solely for social reasons or for building business networks. They never had an understanding of or belief in the doctrines of the church. Losing these quasi-Christians has actually been good for the church. As I wrote in my Federalist article (linked above) –
“Christians must get used to being a minority in a pagan world. We have to drop the nostalgia for the 1950s and ’60s, which were an anomaly for church attendance. For most of our country’s history fewer than 50 percent of the population attended church. Many attended church in the post-World War II period for social or business reasons, without any real understanding of the faith. Because of this, the church did indeed include many “Christians” who were bigoted and mean-spirited, and this alienated substantial numbers of people who were looking for true faith.”
This minority status has been turned around at various times in our history with “Awakenings” – surges of widespread revivals that turned the bulk of the nation back to Christ. There have been at least three of these, usually lead by a charismatic preacher. It happens when God determines and His Holy Spirit sets hearts on fire.
Dreher allows no place for divine intervention. Instead, he writes things like this – “Today the culture war as we knew it is over. The so-called values voters – social and religious conservatives – have been defeated and are being swept to the political margins.”
He also writes, “… the verdict on the overall political strategy is clear: we failed. Fundamental abortion rights remain solidly in place, and Gallup poll numbers from the Roe v. Wade era until today have not meaningfully changed.” This is at best a simplistic statement. NPR reports – “Gallup finds that 60 percent of Americans believe abortion generally should be legal during the first three months of pregnancy, known as the first trimester. That support drops by more than half, to 28 percent, once a pregnancy reaches the second trimester; it falls to 13 percent in the third trimester, at which point the fetus is often viable with medical support.” (Source.) The Right to Life movement hasn’t “failed.” It has shown persistence and is growing in influence over time, especially now that sonograms are widely available and pregnant women can see that their a fetus is not just some abstract blob of cells, but has all the characteristics of a human baby.
Dreher’s defeatism seems down right masochistic. He writes, “The public square has been lost,” and, “The Benedict Option calls for a new Christian politics, one that grows out of our relative powerlessness in contemporary America.” Powerlessness? No, Christians have simply failed to use the power they have. Thinking in purely organizational terms, the Christian Church is the most powerful non-governmental organization in the country. What other group in the United States can bring tens of millions of their members to meet together once a week, every week? We have schools, and hospitals, and summer camps. We minister to the poor, the prisoners, pregnant women, the homeless. We raise many billions of dollars each and every year to fund all this and much more, including missions all over the world. This is in keeping with the “Great Commission” commandment of Jesus – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus is with us – always. Why is Dreher so fearful?
But Dreher seems to think Christians have wasted the past several decades by focusing on electoral politics to the exclusion of everything else. In fact, political activity has been a minor part of what Christians actually do. Some Christians are focused on it, but many others focus mostly on missions, or mercy ministries within the Unites States, still others focus on music, writing, teaching and everything else Americans do with their time, including sports and business. We each have our own gifts and that is what makes up the body of Christ. We live out our faith in all our activities and witness to our non-believing colleagues.
Dreher should know this, but his understanding seems surprisingly shallow. Even his understanding of the American founding is simplistic. He contends that the Founders were mostly deists who were in thrall of “The Enlightenment.” Actually, they weren’t mostly deists. The example he (and most others) cite is Benjamin Franklin. Franklin did indeed think of himself as a Deist as a young man, but his faith matured significantly over the years and he became a Biblical Christian by 1735. (see http://www.increasinglearning.com/franklin-conversion.html ) Even the Founders’ frequent assertion that the success of the American Revolution was the work of Providence belies the notion that they were Deists. Deists believed that God created the universe but then walked away from his creation and had no further intervention.
The Founders were certainly influenced by the Enlightenment, but it was tempered by an equal dose of the Reformation. What is the difference? As Francis Schaeffer explains in “How Should We Then Live,” the Enlightenment was humanistic. It believed that Man was in charge and the Man’s reason could determine good and bad and create a utopian society on its own. The Reformation believed there is an eternal truth created by God, and Man’s reason could be used to better understand God’s creation. Men are image bearers of God and are therefore “created equal” and have rights given to us by our Creator. But we are also fallen and prone to sin, so we need to be restrained.
Schaeffer contrasts the American and French revolutions to illustrate the difference. The French Revolution was pure Enlightenment. There is no truth other than what Man declares it to be, so truth will be determined by whoever is in charge at the time. This leads inevitably to a quest for power at any cost, and the French Revolution resulted in a blood bath between competing factions, only to be resolved with the rise of Napolean and his dictatorial regime.
The American founders knew very well how corruptible humans are, and so built a system of limited government, checks and balances, and minority rights. Within this framework individuals were free to pursue their own interests of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
These principles still apply today and are worth defending, not only for Christians, but for all thoughtful people. Retreating into our own sheltered communities will leave the American experiment without its most ardent defenders and concede the struggle to the secularists and Marxists who want to destroy all of that.
I much prefer Franklin Graham’s approach to the struggle –
“This is no time for Christians to isolate ourselves and withdraw from engagement with our culture. We are not of the world, as Jesus said (John 17:14), but we are most certainly in the world. We have the responsibility for our sake and especially for the sake of our children and grandchildren, to do all we possibly can to influence our communities with righteous conduct.”
(Decision Magazine, July/August, 2018)
In fact, rather that the “Benedict Option,” perhaps we should think about the “Gideon Option.” (Judges 6) For those unfamiliar with the story here is a short synopsis -- https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-stories/the-bible-story-of-gideon.html
The odds against Gideon were enormous, but God whittles them down even further, leaving Gideon with only 300 men to go against a massive army. Why? So everyone would know that only God’s intervention could win the battle. Dreher may have no faith in the ability of God to restore America, but Christians must – no matter the odds. In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God made a promise that still applies today, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
We don’t need to enter a monastery to do this. We can do it in our kitchens, at the grocery store, at our desks, even at our kids’ soccer games. Christians, of all people, should have no room for defeatism or despair. Christ is with us always and victory is only a prayer away.