Response to “the Benedict Option”
In the title of this blog essay I put “the Benedict option” in quotation marks rather than italics because here I am not responding to the book by Rod Dreher but to the idea at the heart of the book as expressed in a Christianity Today article entitled “The Idea of a Christian Village.” (Christianity Today, March, 2017, pp. 34-41) The article is by author Rod Dreher and is about his proposal; the subtitle of the article indicates that it is an excerpt from his book: “How to conserve and strengthen Christians in a culture hostile to our faith. An exclusive excerpt from The Benedict Option. Here I will be responding to this article/excerpt knowing, admitting, that not having read the whole book some of my response may be faulty and would be corrected by reading the book. I intend to read the book, but I have a pile of books I’m supposed to read and respond to in some way and they are prioritized; I don’t have the freedom simply to put one on top of the pile. The Benedict Option goes near the bottom for now. However, I have been asked here and by others what I think of the idea, not the book, so here I will respond to that question.
Two other quick caveats. First, here I am not talking about the author (Rod Dreher) whom I do not know. I know virtually nothing about him and this response to his idea is not at all about him personally or professionally. It is only about his idea—as I understand it. Second, here I am not able to quote extensively from the article. Please read it for yourself (and the book as you can). Copyright laws make it impossible for me to quote extensively from any copyrighted work.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
So what is “the Benedict option” according to Dreher in the CT article?
Dreher, not at all alone in this, begins with the assumption that American culture has changed so dramatically that it is becoming extremely difficult to live and practice true Christianity while immersed in the culture. American culture has become radically individualistic (“atomized”), dominated by consumerism, privileging secularism, and openly hostile to traditional, orthodox Christianity. But his assumption is not just about beliefs; it is about practices and one practice he considers essential to true, historical, biblical, orthodox Christianity is family life. Dreher looks at American culture (not only American, however) and sees it as captivated by habits of the heart that are inimical not only to a Christian life and worldview but also to any conservative ideas and practices that are strongly influenced by the culture. He also believes these inimical habits of the heart, cultural beliefs and practices, have so permeated many American churches that it is time to discover and develop a new/old way of being Christian. That old/new way is something like a return to monastic life without its rigidity and isolation.
In other words, so I take it from the article, Dreher (and others) believe the only way to be authentically Christian in contemporary America (and other places) is to form intentional Christian communities where being Christian is central to everyday life and not just a belief system or appendage to life outside the church. He believes that these intentional Christian communities need to avoid all cultishness—although they will be considered cultish by some outsiders just because they are different from the surrounding culture in terms of values and virtues—while being life spaces in which traditional Christian ideas of family life, for example, are supported, encouraged and enhanced.
In the article Dreher offers several case studies of such intentional Christian communities and the ones he mentions and describes do not all fit the mold, the image, the stereotype of a monastery? So he is not calling his proposal a “monastic option” even though, of course, Benedict was the founder of a major monastic tradition in Western Christianity. I wonder if his book (and article) would be getting as much attention if he had not included Benedict’s name in the title? But that’s a side question and issue and not central to his proposal. My point, though, is that the proposal, insofar as I can understand it from the article, does not sound all that new to me. I have been reading and hearing about intentional Christian communities and “the new monasticism” for a long time now. And, of course, I am very familiar with many Anabaptist-influenced intentional Christian communities in America and around the world.
So let me offer my own case study of an intentional Christian community with which I am very familiar and that seems to be based on some of Dreher’s basic assumptions about American culture and some of his central proposals for Christian living in a post-Christian culture. Let me say first that I suspect Dreher might consider this particular intentional Christian community somewhat cultic; many others do. I do not, even though I have qualms about some of its doctrines and practices.
I am not going to name the group here; doing so would probably only lead into a controversy initiated by ex-members many of who left it strongly dissatisfied and even angry. I know some of them and have some sympathy with some of their complaints, but I also recognize that some of what I hear from them has another side. It’s like a divorce; one listens to both sides and often concludes that one cannot really decide who is right—about the causes of it.
The church is the center of the community. Some members live in close proximity to it and even share their property in a kind of semi-communal way which is entirely voluntary. (But they do not have a “common purse” as do some Christian intentional communities.) Other members live on private property (although they would reject the adjective “private”) but increasingly move as close to the “village” as possible. Family life is central to everything about this intentional Christian community that consists of about one thousand members (including both those who live together on common property owned by the church and those who live on their own property).
Some consider them isolationist, but I have concluded that is not a proper description. They are not at all like, for example, Hutterites (although they share some beliefs and practices with them). They live as families and yet the church is their extended family. The boundaries between family and church are somewhat indistinct—compared with most American families including most Christians. I have come to know this intentional Christian community very well—as an outsider but to some degree, through friendship and familiarity, an insider (more than most outsiders).
I suspect that Dreher and others like him would consider this particular expression of “the Benedict option” somewhat “weird” (a word he uses in the article for expressions of the option he considers too extreme). And yet, I am confident, knowing the group very well, that they would argue that how they live as Christians is the only way to avoid the kind of cultural assimilation Dreher himself wants Christians to avoid by adopting his Benedict option.
I tend to agree with my friends even though I have not found the inner wherewithal to join their community. I do see some “quirks” in their practice of intentional Christian community that cause me to have some qualms about it. But I admire and respect their intentions, their resolve, their emphasis on Christian community and traditional family life. And above all I tend to admire and respect their concern for children. Yes, many critics accuse them of over-sheltering their children, and I tend to agree with that, but given the condition of American culture today I can also understand why they do it.
“Gut feeling” is untrustworthy; I know. However, when I am with them I watch the children and see and sense something very different about them. In my considered opinion, even though their options are limited compared with their peers outside the community, they seem extremely happy, peaceful and undisturbed by common American adolescent cynicism, hardness, jadedness. Protecting their children from popular American culture drives much of this group’s practice of the Benedict option.
Note to those who wish to comment especially about my unnamed intentional Christian community: If you happen to know its name or location, do not mention it in your comment as I will not post any comment that does that. The group is controversial; I am not interested in adding to that controversy or engaging in it. For myself, I have personally concluded that this group is not a “cult” even though some outsiders and some ex-members call it such. To me, today, labeling any religious or other group a “cult” is like putting a target on them and inviting people to attack them using legal means or otherwise. These people are my friends even though I do not fully agree with some of their beliefs and practices. I personally belief that any Christian group that adopts Dreher’s Benedict option will be labeled a cult by some people. That is the nature of our contemporary American culture and one reason for the Benedict option.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).