Though I was born in the United States, our family moved to Hong Kong when I was a child, and I returned only when it was time for college. As a young adult, I recall that in certain churches that I visited, I was struck by what I like to refer to as a syncretistic mixing of the gospel with a kind of political or social conservatism. I found it strange and jarring when people, often without realizing what they were doing, blurred the lines between the teachings of Jesus and the ideals of American (or at least Western) civilization. Even when there was no direct contradiction, my mind would get distracted trying to disentangle the two threads.
While reading Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option, I found myself getting distracted in just this way throughout the book. Dreher’s theology is, for the most part, firmly grounded in New Testament teaching. In his concluding chapter, he approvingly quotes the wise advice of a pastor, Greg Thompson, who said, “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine. It can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.” Amen. Yet there were many times I wondered, is Dreher’s vision of the Benedict Option faithful to this ideal? Or does it rather value Christianity, or Christian civilization, above Christ himself?
But I am getting ahead of myself. Just what is Dreher’s Benedict Option anyway?
The Benedict Option was published in 2017, but as Dreher explains in the Introduction, the concept predates the book by about a decade.
In my 2006 book Crunchy Cons, which explored a
countercultural, traditionalist conservative sensibility,
I brought up the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre,
who declared that Western civilization had lost its moorings.
The time was coming, said MacIntyre, when men and women of
virtue would understand that continued full participation in
mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to
live a life of traditional virtue. These people would find
new ways to live in community, he said, just as Saint Benedict,
the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, responded to
the collapse of Roman civilization by founding a monastic order.
I called the strategic withdrawal prophesied by MacIntyre “the Benedict Option.” The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.
The storm clouds have been gathering for decades, but most of us believers have operated under the illusion that they would blow over. The breakdown of the natural family, the loss of traditional moral values, and the fragmenting of communities—we were troubled by these developments but believed that they were reversible and didn’t reflect anything fundamentally wrong with our approach to faith. Our religious leaders told us that strengthening the levees of law and politics would keep the flood of secularism at bay. The sense one had was: There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed by continuing to do what Christians have been doing for decades—especially voting for Republicans.The above paragraph, and similar passages elsewhere in the book, have helped me understand that the Benedict Option grows out of a sense of disillusionment and disorientation. I personally have never believed that politics offers any fundamental solutions to the problems of humanity, or even that American political ideals have ever been neatly aligned with New Testament truth, and so the political climate in the United States today does not surprise me, nor is it news to me that we cannot expect to fix social problems by political means. For Dreher and others like him, however, the Benedict Option is a response to the shattering of a pleasant but false dream about the power of law and politics.
Dreher begins the main part of his book with a capsule summary of the history of Western civilization. I am not sure that I agree with Dreher’s account, but I will skip most of these criticisms because I do not think they are that relevant to the main thrust of the book. I will, however, mention that there is one important concept that Dreher refers to several times in the book, and that I feel that Dreher defines in a confusing and idiosyncratic way, namely nominalism.
This idea implies that objects have no intrinsic meaning,
only the meaning assigned to them, and therefore no
meaningful existence outside the mind. A table is
just wood and nails arranged in a certain way, until we give
it meaning by naming it “table.” (Nomen
is the Latin word for “name,” hence nominalism).
… Medieval metaphysicians believed nature pointed to God. Nominalists did not. They believed there is no inner meaning existing objectively within nature and discoverable by reason. Meaning is extrinsic—that is, imposed from the outside, by God—and accessible to humans by faith in Him and His revelation alone.
The Benedict Option, of course, derives its name from St. Benedict of Nursia. In Chapter 3, Dreher describes his personal pilgrimage to a Benedictine monastery in Norcia, the modern name of the town Nursia. The monastery has a somewhat rocky history. Napoleon shut down the monastery in the early 1800s, and it was not reopened until December 2000, nearly two hundred years later. Not long after Dreher’s visit, the building was destroyed by an earthquake in October 2016, and the monks currently live in Umbria, just outside Norcia. Despite these setbacks, the monks have persevered in living out their community life in accordance with the ancient Rule of St. Benedict.
Dreher takes pains to explain that the Rule, which prescribes in great detail how to live life in the monastery and which to a modern mind might seem excessively restrictive and even legalistic, is regarded not as a road to salvation, but as a tool for building a community life that is ordered and stable, with a strong emphasis on work and prayer.
The life prescribed by the Rule is thoroughly ascetic. Monks fast regularly, live simply, refuse comfort, and abide by the strict rules of the monastery. This is not a matter of earning spiritual merit. Rather, the monk knows the human heart and how its passions must be reined in through disciplined living. Asceticism is an antidote to the poison of self-centeredness common in our culture, which teaches us that satisfying our own desires is the key to the good life. The ascetic knows that true happiness can be found only be living in harmony with the will of God, and ascetical practices train body and soul to put God above self.One might think that Dreher’s use of the term “Benedict Option” indicates that he is advocating a return to monasticism. But in fact, he is not recommending anything of the sort. In the second half of the book, he gives a detailed outline of what he envisages the Benedict Option to be. It ranges from taking a more limited and local approach to political action, to building a tighter-knit and ascetical church community, to emphasizing classical Christian education (perhaps even home-schooling), to sacrificing our preferred vocations and technological addictions if necessary to maintain integrity and focus.
Dreher gives a couple of examples of Benedict Option communities. One is a lay Catholic community called the “Tipi Loschi” (Italian for “the usual suspects”) in San Benedetto del Tronto on Italy’s Adriatic coast. A grassroots movement founded by Marco Sermarini and his friends from college, the Tipi Loschi comprises about two hundred members. They administer a community school and work hard to support each other in every aspect of daily life.
“The possibility to live like this is for everyone,” says Sermarini. “We have only to follow an old way to do things that we always had but lost some years ago. The main thing is not to go with the mainstream. Then seek God, and after that, look for others who are also serious about seeking God, and join them. We started with this desire and started trying to teach others to do the same, to receive the same gift we were given: the Catholic faith.”Dreher also mentions Leah Libresco (now Leah Sargeant) who “is a Catholic and an effervescent Benedict Option entrepreneur who lives in New York City with her husband Alexi.”
“I used to do things with my Christian friends, and we knew
we were all Christian, but the fact that we were Christians never
came up,” she says. “There’s something weird
when none of the communal parts of your life are overtly Christian.
The Benedict Option is about creating the opportunity for those
things to happen. It doesn’t feel urgent, but it’s
really important.” …
“People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!’ ” Libresco told me. “But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.“
Dreher, and other people he quotes such as Sermarini and Libresco, paint an attractive and compelling picture of the Benedict Option. Many of their recommended practices are ones that I agree with, that are close to how I live my life already, and that I believe naturally flow out of putting Christ first in one’s life—ahead of politics, career, and material comfort. What’s not to like? I do believe that starting a conversation about the Benedict Option in one’s church community is a good thing to do. As Libresco said, giving it a name helps people take it seriously. Some of the behavioral changes advocated by Dreher require considerable determination and fortitude, and will be unlikely to happen unless a conscious decision is made in the context of a community of other like-minded individuals.
The one concern I have about the Benedict Option is the one that I alluded to at the beginning of this review. Namely, it seems to me that what the Benedict Option puts first is not Christ himself, but the preservation of our Christian community and our Christian heritage. The distinction is a subtle one but there are signs of it throughout the book. Note for example that Sermarini is quoted as saying that the main thing is not to go with the mainstream, and only then seek God, rather than the other way around. A quibble you say? Perhaps. Note also that Libresco tells people that they have figured out the koan, a term from Zen Buddhism rather than Christianity. A casual choice of metaphor that I am blowing out of proportion? Probably. Still, the sense I get throughout the book is that it is more of a survival guide for a threatened minority community—whatever that community might be, Christian or not—than a call to repent and follow Christ.
The syncretism that I mentioned earlier is also in evidence, for example in the section on classical Christian schools. Dreher says that “classical Christian education takes a Great Books approach to the curriculum.” When Dreher speaks of Great Books, I suspect he is not telling Christians in China to study Chinese classics, or Christians in Muslim countries in the Middle East to study texts from the golden age of Islam. If my suspicion is correct, then why is it so important for Christians around the world to study Western civilization and Western Great Books even when they are not Christian? It seems to me that Dreher’s thinking is not global enough, and that he has a tendency to conflate Christian values with Western values. There is some correlation between the two, to be sure, but if the distinction is not clearly kept in mind, then the Benedict Option risks becoming more of a movement to preserve a certain vision of Western civilization than a concerted effort to follow Christ more faithfully.
Despite these caveats, I do agree with one of Dreher’s main predictions, that if American Christians do not make a conscious collective effort to swim against the tide of “liquid modernity” then they will be swept away or assimilated, and the gospel will be at great risk of disappearing from American society, as it has been disappearing from other Western societies. Dreher has clearly pointed out the warning signs, and he is correct that the time to act is now. Procrastinate at your own peril.