The Benedict Option: Our Culture’s Problem

Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 8.16.51 PMThe Benedict Option of Rod Dreher, well known conservative commentator and author of the new and best-selling book The Benedict Option, is a proposal for how best to create a Christian culture in order, if the time is right, for Christians to return to a position of influence.

As a theory the BenOp is less anabaptistic and more in the world of what H. Richard Niebuhr called “transformationalist” or “influentialist.” However, unlike the Niebuhrian or Kuyperian approaches to influence, the BenOp calls for a strategic regrouping — not a radical withdrawal from society — of Christians. This regrouping is designed for Christians to become more robustly Christian and for churches to become more robustly the church. There are, then, hints in the BenOp of some Kuyperian, some Niebuhrian and even some anabaptistic themes. Overall, however, the BenOp is far more Roman Catholic than anything else. Dreher is himself Eastern Orthodox though there is very little quotation of Orthodox theologians and far more of an ecumenical weaving together of a variety of thinkers.

Some, like J.K.A. Smith, have accused Dreher of tapping into alarmist themes. Writes Smith:

And in his much-anticipated book, “The Benedict Option,” blogger Rod Dreher has seen the apocalypse: “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.” Note, again: if you’re not alarmed, you’re not seeing things, a circular reasoning to help work yourself into a froth of fear.

Facts and interpretations are alarmist according to the eyes of the beholder. I read Smith’s review twice before I read Dreher’s book and Dreher’s book is not recognizable to me in Smith’s review. Hence, I want to give Dreher’s book a fair description.

Here’s the problem in our culture that Dreher sees and that has prompted Dreher’s work over the last few years.

Even though conservative Christians were said to be fighting a culture war, with the exception of the abortion and gay marriage issues, it was hard to see my people putting up much of a fight. We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian. 1-2

He has been proposing something for several years, something that is a strategic withdrawal (notice that word “strategic”):

I called the strategic withdrawal prophesied by Maclntyre “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. 2

With many others he perceives a “steady decline of Christianity and the steady increase in hostility to traditional values” (2).  So this is what Dreher is on about:

I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in practice. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs (3).

I spoke with a major anabaptist leader from a Christian community who thought in some ways Dreher’s proposal — not least in the words I just quoted — sounds quite anabaptistic. The withdrawal of Dreher is first of all a choice to be Christians with other Christians and one’s church — and he’s not proposing his Orthodox church or the Roman Catholic Church or Evangelicalism — is to be the center of one’s life.

Dreher’s proposal is to form base communities of traditional Christian faith to form a Christian culture that can be an alternative to Western culture. There is less an emphasis here of re-engagement with society down the road and far more of forming the structures that will help re-create a Christian culture.

The issue some have — I mentioned Smith above — is how deep is the problem; how wide the problem; how intractable is the problem. Dreher is pessimistic about the possibility of slowing down the runaway truck. I quote a few lines that play with a variety of metaphors:

The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. 8

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 these developments but believed 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. 8

Here’s a major theme to this book: “The public square has been lost” (9). But so also the church has been drastically impacted:

Even more troubling, many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught there is devoid of power and life. 10

The problem in the church, borrowing from Christian Smith, is Moral Therapeutic Deism.

What can be done? More of the same? Dreher says no.

Nobody but the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right believes that this cultural revolution can be turned back. 12

Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to . . . stop fighting the flood? 12

Drawing upon Alasdair MacIntyre, Dreher argues the society we now have only comes as a result of the following:

abandoning objective moral standards;
refusing to accept any religiously or culturally binding narrative originating outside oneself, except as chosen;
repudiating memory of the past as irrelevant; and
distancing oneself from community as well as any unchosen social obligations (16-17).

Back to his proposal:

What these orthodox Christians are doing now are the seeds of what I call the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace “exile in place” and form a vibrant counterculture. 18

Such persons…

Rather than panicking or remaining complacent, they recognize that the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with. It will be those who learn how to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of on partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith can survive and prosper through the flood. 18-19

 

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