Should Evangelicals Embrace the “Benedict Option”?

Should Evangelicals Embrace the “Benedict Option”? July 7, 2015

Rod Dreher has been blogging about the need for traditional Christians to embrace the “Benedict Option” of retreat from and engagement with post-Christian society. In a recent post, he commented that

It is retreat in the sense that it requires a) an honest and sober recognition of the condition of our post-Christian culture, and the relationship of the church to it; b) a realistic understanding of how radically Christianity opposes the mainstream post-Christian culture; c) a clear grasp of how radically Christians have to live, in community, to “push back against the world as hard as it pushes against you” (Flannery O’Connor), and d) implementing these new, and renewed, ways of living, in part to build resilience for the trials to come, and to guard against assimilation.

It is about engagement in that the church has a mission to serve the world, through evangelism and works of charity. The church can only fulfill its mission if it knows who, and what, it is. The early Benedictines lived in community, behind monastery walls, so they could pray as they were called to pray. But they also served the people outside the monastery walls. The former had everything to do with how effectively they did the latter.

Some evangelicals have balked at Dreher’s concept because they see it as surrender in the great moral and religious conflicts of the day, including the nature of marriage and religious liberty. Others have warned that radical secularists and gay activists won’t let Christians have a Benedict Option: “you will be assimilated” is the secularists’ motto.

I sympathize with these concerns. Still, I am convinced by Dreher’s analysis – and really, I don’t think there’s any other option for traditional Christians but the Benedict path. Christian homes, schools, and churches have always been counter-cultural outposts. De jure and de facto forms of Christian establishments have sometimes blurred that counter-cultural reality, usually to the detriment of Christian integrity. But we Christians are now placed in a deeply oppositional position vis a vis elite American political, business, and entertainment culture. Taking the Benedict Option, in most cases, just equates to Christian discipleship in our cultural moment. None of this precludes seeking cultural and political influence, it just admits our real social location and places little hope in politics to reform the surrounding culture.

Consider the culture of the home, the “mediating institution” over which we have the most control. Although secular elites still often mimic the nuclear family model of a married mother and father, the culture they steward mocks the normativity of that traditional unit. Increasingly, we see broken families – divorced or never-married parents, fathers absent from their children, and mothers put in hopeless situations as sole breadwinners and sole parents. Much of a child’s waking hours are given over to daycare or government schools, and when they are not there, children are plugged into endless hours of unmonitored online entertainment.

Aimé Pez (1808-1849), “Familienidylle,” 1839, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

How different, then, are the traditional Christian practices of family life? (None of the following are exclusively for Christians, nor do all professing Christians practice them.) Marriage between a man and a woman, marital vows before sex, viewing children as a blessing from God, and a responsibility to raise those children in the fear of the Lord. Limits on “screen time” which allow for more reading, more outside play, and more sleep. Family dinners and prayer, church attendance, reading in the Bible and other edifying, educational books.

These and countless other small counter-cultural aspects of Christian family life today may not strike us as “retreat,” but they are conscious decisions not to assimilate to the patterns of mainstream culture. We may even find it hard to maintain these standards in the context of church, where many of the parents of our kids’ friends are not choosing the counter-cultural path. Nevertheless, for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.

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