Why We Need the Benedict Option and How It Doesn’t Have to Return to Fundamentalism

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by Heather Walker Peterson

When I mentioned to a friend that I was interviewing Rod Dreher about his book The Benedict Option, my friend’s response was that Dreher struck him as “reactive.” Since then, I’ve read the book and multiple reviews. In light of my background and career, I believe that Dreher is being “pro-active” not reactive as long as direct measures are taken to avoid some of the sins of the kingdom building of past fundamentalists.

A driving force behind The Benedict Option as a response to “liquid modernity” or “Moral Therapeutic Deism” is the U.S.’s cultural movement toward a full embrace of nontraditional sexual ethics. This embrace is not just the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding marriage but the social expectations of open affirmation of diverse sexual mores in the educational and corporate spheres.

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?

  1. Hands-On Ministry

In his book, Dreher is direct about the need for Benedict Option Christians to work with their hands as much as their minds. Many monks take care of the basic need of their monasteries along with their intellectual studies. Therefore, an intentional part of Benedict Option organizations has to include hands-on ministry to help evangelicals pull themselves out of a mind-only, bunker approach. It could be soup kitchen volunteering or as simple as my local Christian study center, which has a coffee time with refreshments available for the international students who need a place to hang out.

  1. A Sacramental Approach to the World

Dreher touches on this with his comments on the thoughts of Reformed theologian Hans Boersma. Dreher, rightfully I think, insists on the need for liturgy to restore Christian’s collective memory. However, as I’ve become more immersed in churches with historical liturgies, I can vouch that liturgy may aid but doesn’t make worshippers view the world sacramentally, what Dreher calls “real participation in the eternal,” echoing Boersma.

In his book, Heavenly Participation, Boersma writes about the sacramental quality of the world, “the created order” as all being a gift from God. To avoid the nonsacramental views of the world that many Christians have now (Catholic and Protestant, according to Boersma), the parallel structures of strategic withdrawal will have to include intentional teaching on sacramental ontology. In viewing the world as gift, members of Benedict Option communities must be trained to love not only the natural world around them but also to love those not like them but still made in the image of God.

To study sacramental ontology contextualized, one must study church history.

  1. A Regard for the Historical Church’s Engagement with Culture

Dreher relies on the historical church in following Benedict’s rule in approach to culture, but will those who branch off into their own Benedict Option also do so?

I’m somewhat tentative about the ability of many evangelicals to set up intentional communities. These will be evangelicals who are responding to what they see as the downslide of Western culture.  They’re from a subculture focused on interpreting Scripture for oneself (and who also have a tendency to just pick and choose a historical tradition here or there without a full understanding of its context).

God’s Word is authoritative, but as Vanhoozer has noted almost twenty years ago in Is There Meaning in This Text?, “fundamentalism teaches the authority of the text but practices the authority of the interpretive community.” Scandals in megachurches have shown us that leaders with charismatic personalities can become untouchable. The leader who interprets Scripture can become more authoritative than Scripture itself.

Members of the Benedict’s Option’s parallel structures will need to rely on the history of the church to understand varied interpretations of Scriptures in their engagement with culture. They will also have to be intentional about an openness to critique within and outside of their structures.

  1. An Openness to Critique

After quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together, Dreher writes, “a community that cannot face its faults and love each other through to healing is not truly Christian.” He wisely points out in the chapter “The Idea of a Christian Village” the dangers of idolizing community or of excessively controlling it to make it perfect.

In my mind, an important book for those with plans for a Benedict Option church or community is Andy Crouch’s Strong and Weak to understand how healthy vulnerability in power relationships leads to flourishing. I believe that any community who wants to grow needs to have intentional places and times for critique. Making ourselves open to critique is hard, but this vulnerability is central to transformation as Christians, whether individually or collectively.

Ultimately, Dreher is making a call for faithfulness in resistance to cultural assumptions we as Christians have been habituating. As we become disillusioned with our culture, I pray we also become disillusioned with ourselves, even as we create new Christian community. As Bonhoeffer wrote, it is when we experience the disillusionment of our close fellows and ourselves that true community can happen.


heather-may2015-sm20-1Heather Walker Peterson is a writer, mother, assistant professor and department chair. She also writes at humanepursuits.com

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