Unless you have been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, you’ve almost certainly heard about Orthodox journalist Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in Post-Christian America (Sentinel, 2017). It has elicited no shortage of both praise and derision amongst reviewers.
I just finished it up for myself a couple of days ago and wanted to write out a few of my initial reflections. As such, this is not a full-fledged review. There have already been plenty of those put out thus far (just Google “Benedict Option book review” and you’ll find a plethora to read through). Rather, I’m more interested in looking at Dreher’s overarching thesis.
So what is Dreher trying to get at with The Benedict Option anyway?
Broadly speaking, Dreher’s overall purpose in the book is to two-fold. First he seeks to sound a call to theologically orthodox and conservative Christians to become more aware of the surging forces of a post-Christendom secularism, and the eroding effects it is having (and will continue to have) on traditional, Western socio-cultural mores. As Dreher notes:
Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind. But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears. (p. 12 [page numbers cited here are from the Kindle edition of the book])
Second, in the wake of this realization, Dreher argues that orthodox Christians should strengthen both their theological and communal bonds in order to whether the coming secular storm. Again, Dreher:
Could it be that the best way to fight the flood [of morally-corrosive secularism] is to . . . stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation. (p. 12)
This second aspect—the call to “stop fighting the flood” and to strengthen orthodox theological commitments and Christian communal bonds—is the eponymous “Benedict Option” named after St. Benedict of Nursia. The bulk of the book is then devoted to examining some of the specific ways that orthodox Christians in America can begin to live into the “Benedict Option.”
Dreher lays this out in multiple ways. He addresses everything from how Benedict Option Christians should engage in politics, reclaim the historic (e.g., pre-modern) roots of Christian liturgical worship and life, invest in localism and strong community ties, foster education that seeks to be truly formative in a doxological sense, strengthen a classical (pre-Sexual Revolution) Christian sexual ethic, and challenge the technocratic regime of modern life.
Some Positives of the Book
Dreher truly shines in his assessment and prescription on several of these topics. For instance, in regards to political engagement, Dreher writes that we should neither totally divest ourselves from political engagement, nor should we invest our hopes in the political process. We should be active, but always with the realization that political engagement alone is insufficient as a means of preserving traditional culture and morals:
Here’s how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department.
The point is not that we should stop voting or being active in conventional politics. The point, rather, is that this is no longer enough. (p. 98)
Similarly, in regards to rampant and unchecked technocratic growth (especially in the biotech industry), Dreher reminds the reader that technological progress is nowhere near the same thing as moral progress:
…the body is not simply wetware, a biological form of the computer. The habit of thinking mechanistically about the body causes us to let down our moral and ethical guard. Technological progress is not the same thing as moral progress—and in fact, can be its opposite.
In a tense conversation about bioethics, a prominent Christian medical researcher said to me, “The things we are going to be facing in the next decade or so shock the conscience.
“My colleagues can’t see it,” he continued, referring to scientists he works with. “Most of them aren’t Christians, but even the Christians, when I try to engage them on the topic, I get nothing but blank stares.”
These are scientists whose minds have been captured and disarmed by technology, which trains us to think of ourselves in instrumental terms. In the early twentieth century, the most progressive minds in the American establishment embraced eugenics—the pseudoscience of improving the race through controlled breeding. Leading churchmen endorsed the idea, saying it would improve society through applied science. It fell to Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists to object to eugenics on grounds of human dignity.Eugenics fell into disgrace after the world saw what the Nazis did with these racial theories. Now, in the twenty-first century, eugenics is making a comeback, thanks to rapidly advancing biotechnology that promises to give parents the ability to make designer babies. Will contemporary Christians find their prophetic voice? Not if they have ordered their minds according to the technological imperative. (pp. 233-34)
There are many other great and insightful treatments like these throughout the book.
Some Negatives of the Book
Unfortunately, for all the good aspects of the book, there are also some problematic elements as well. While, in my opinion, the good aspects of the book outweigh the bad, it is still necessary to address some of the shortcomings.
The biggest oversight of the book comes in regards to education. Dreher rightly notes that instituting some form of virtue-forming education is important for Benedict Option Christians. A robust education in not only Scripture and Christian classics, but also in the formative texts of Western civilization is indeed laudable and needed. However, Dreher posits that the only two real options for Benedict Option Christians to educate their children in this way are classical Christian schools (different from conventional private, Christian schools) or homeschooling. Indeed, Dreher writes (undoubtedly with some hyperbolic effect):
Because public education in America is neither rightly ordered, nor religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system. (p. 155)
Now, for the record, I am very supportive of the impulse behind the classical Christian school movement. It seeks to educate students in not only the standard topics that comprise primary and secondary education, but also in the classical topics of Western education. Homeschooling on the other hand…well let’s just say I have issues with homeschooling as it stands, both methodologically and philosophically.
The problem with Dreher’s approach though, is that in their current states, both classical Christian schooling and homeschooling are avenues that are really only available to middle and upper-middle class white Americans. Of course there are sociological exceptions to this trend, but generally speaking, black or Latino Christian families often don’t have the financial resources for either of these schooling options. This is also the case for many working-class white families. Many American Christians, who would otherwise be amenable to the Benedict Option, only have the option of public schooling.
Similarly, Dreher contends that Benedict Option Christians should devote their economic resources toward Christian businesses and business networks. Again, I agree with the impulse here, especially as it is tied to the localism Dreher encourages. Again, though, the economic constraints upon racial and socio-economic minority Christians raises its ugly head here. For Christians who are constrained to inner-city settings or to businesses within walking distance (say, if they don’t have a car, or only an unreliable one), this kind of economic behavior may not be possible.
To be clear, neither of these shortcomings (nor any that I neglected to mention) are detrimental to Dreher’s overall argument. They are oversights that can be corrected. Indeed, the need to correct such oversights could provide fertile ground for minority Christians to contribute and help adjust the larger social and racial problems present in the American church. However, the problem are still present in the book, and so I have addressed them within that context.
I like The Benedict Option. It is a much needed call to many American Christians that the current socio-cultural and political orders are not their friends. It reminds us—despite short term cultural gains by a syncretistic and nominal evangelicalism over the last half-century—that (to quote Matt. 10:22) we as orthodox Christians “will be hated by all” on account of Christ’s name. Classical, orthodox Christianity may be able to live alongside of a post-Christendom, pluralist secularism, but it cannot make nice with it.
However, the book is not without its faults. As they currently stand, several of the prescriptive elements of the book are only realistically available to white, middle and upper-middle class American Christians. If the Benedict Option is to truly succeed in the long-term, it will have to find a way to offer solutions that are widely available to Christians across the socio-economic spectrum.
If you are a thoughtful, orthodox Christian, I’d highly recommend reading The Benedict Option. You will almost surely find elements to disagree with. Rod Dreher is one of my favorite contemporary journalists, and I still had disagreements. But the book is best read as a conversation starter, rather than a final, thorough-going treatment of all the problems and solutions facing orthodox Christians in a secularizing America. And it is precisely as a conversation-starting work—where much more can be said and done—that The Benedict Option succeeds.