In a time of COVID, socially isolating yourself is now mandated for the common good. But a book exploded on the political scene a few years ago that prescribed it as the survival strategy for a society infected by the corrosive virus of secularism. This review first appeared here in The Christian Courier.
“Today we can see that we’ve lost on every front and that the swift and relentless currents of secularism have overwhelmed our flimsy barriers. Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians . . . the public square has been lost.”
These are some of the opening words from Rod Dreher’s new book The Benedict Option (2017), which has made a splash on The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post and far beyond. NY Times columnist David Brooks calls it “the most important religious book of the decade” and it deserves a thorough, mixed review.
|The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Conservative Christians in a Post-Christian Nation|
By Rod Dreher, Sentinel, 2017
The book is making waves because it prophesies that the West has been overrun by a relativistic individualism comparable to the barbarism that toppled Rome in the fifth century. The author calls Christians to follow the example of St. Benedict, the father of monasticism, who responded to the chaos and decadence of that time by retreating into intentional communities in which life, faith and virtue could flourish beyond the decaying structures of a fading empire. The “culture of death” in our time signals a new Dark Age, Dreher says, and (switching metaphors), he proposes that Christians need to build arks of Christian institutions and practice to endure the Great Flood of modern nihilism and despair.
The attempt to Christianize America by courting the Republican party has failed. “Politics is no substitute for personal holiness,” he writes, and congregations have neglected to disciple their members. Churches are “no safe place either” having been “hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism” that leaves them “devoid of power and life.” Referencing sociologist Christian Smith, he says the church is rife with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – an ethos focused on God as a cosmic butler for “culture that worships the Self and material comfort” rather than repenting, embodying Scripture, and following the Way of the Cross.
The need for order
The roots of the current crisis, says Dreher, lie with the West’s disenchanted drive to put an autonomous, desiring self at the centre of the social order. Over the last several hundred years the quest for freedom has severed our connection to God, creation and each other. Benedict’s rule of life – his guide for structuring Christian community – can offer a way to “reweave the tapestry of our Christian lives.” Benedict’s rule gives order, calling for stable, hospitable communities focused on rhythms of prayer and work, ora et labora.
Dreher offers a comprehensive plan for a creative Christian subculture, the Benedict Option (or “BenOp” as it’s been called) with chapters dedicated to prescribing new practises in specific cultural arenas, including politics (more local), church (more disciplined), home (more like a “domestic monastery”), education (with a classical Christian curriculum) and the marketplace (“buy Christian”).
The two most powerful forces shaping our lives and “pulverizing” the church today are sex and technology. Dreher’s warnings about electronic media are urgent: the new devices distort and disrupt relationships, disabling us from the ability to pay attention and think deeply. Take smartphones away from kids and out of worship, he exhorts. Instead, get dirty in the soil, meet people face-to-face.
His warnings regarding the “repaganization” effected by the Sexual Revolution form a stronger theme through the book. The “LGBT agenda” and its “sexual individualism” based in the expression of inner needs of isolated bodies defies not only the restraints of chastity but the cosmic meaning of the male-female complementary “written into the nature of reality.” This “grand deception” is a “fake” and a “metaphysical falsehood” that has been nothing short of “catastrophic” for Christianity. Sexuality severed from the divine order unravels the social fabric, and when believers follow the lead of culture on this matter they effectively “cease to be meaningfully Christian.”
BenOp and Reformed Kingdom Theology
Journalist Joshua Rothman digs deeper into the life of Rod Dreher in an investigative article in The New Yorker. He paints a portrait of Dreher as a native of poor, rural Louisiana who converted to Catholicism and then Eastern Orthodoxy after leaving home for college and finding success in a writing career in New York City. He’s now 50, married with three children and living back in his home territory, but the impression given is of someone who tasted the fast pace of the high life but longs for the peace and order of his upbringing, not to mention for the acceptance of his less-mobile family of origin. One wonders how much rural Southern nostalgia feeds his proposal for cultural retreat.
Dreher’s BenOp can read like theologian H. Richard Niebuhr’s category of “Christ against culture” and when he talks of “leaving society” and finding “safe harbour” the Old Order Mennonites come to mind. But Dreher has had to confront misunderstandings of his book, and recent blogs by him insist against critics that BenOp is not quietist, not escapist, not agrarian off-the-grid, and not a gated community. It’s true that some of his examples are Christian networks in the suburbs and city (although the New Monasticism is never mentioned), but his central images are a monk and the ark.
You could say Reformed communities were doing the BenOp before the BenOp. Dreher characterizes his program as cultivating a “parallel polis” to mainstream secular society, and many Reformed “kingdom agencies” could be seen in this way – the Christian Farmers Federation, Christian schools, the Christian Labour Association, etc. Except there is one key difference in the Reformed approach: the mission of these organizations is to engage wider culture with creation-based norms for cultural renewal. Their mandate is not Noah-like preservation but the pro-active demonstration of faithful alternatives and the proclamation of gospel life to non-Christian neighbours. The Reformational ethic has typically meant restoration and reformation of culture rather than retreat or revolution. Even if wider culture seems wholly degenerate, our antithesis to secular norms is checked by our hope in the common grace of God which propels us towards the common good.
A Council of Despair?
Dreher provocatively subtitled one section: “Pull Your Children out of Public Schools.” Dreher warns about a peer culture of drugs, sex and alcohol, and offers an anecdote of a public school where one third of the grade seven girls declared themselves bisexual after a lesson about gender as “fluid and nonbinary.”
I must confess as outgoing chair of the local Christian school that some of Dreher’s worry resonates with a part of me, but it’s not the part of me that I particularly like. Dreher can sound similar to the Left Behind apocalypse except the extraction of Christians is to an intentional Christian community rather than some heaven light years away. The ark is a better analogy than the sinking Titanic, but tone of presentation sounds similar: The flood is upon us! Enter the ark while there is still time! The blurb on the back of the book warns that “these are the days for building strong arks for the long journey across a sea of night.” That’s not my understanding of Christian education, church, or the state of Western culture.
While he understands “claiming religious persecution unnecessarily will not help the cause” the book has recurring moments where he could be accused of scaremongering. It’s telling that, in subsequent interviews Dreher regrets the “occasionally ‘shrill’ tone” of his book. He wishes he could have captured more of the “place of quiet and contemplation and kindness” that he has experienced in BenOp communities.
Calvin College professor Jamie Smith calls Dreher a friend but has little good to say about his friend’s book. In a Comment review, Smith offers the model of St. Augustine’s repeated instruction to St. Boniface, a Roman general and governor in North Africa, to remain at his post rather than enlist in a monastery. He echoes the Reformational vision to pursue one’s calling in the marketplace, and he characterizes Dreher’s “BenOp” as a “council of despair” based in a politics of resentment and alarmism. Rather than take his cue from an elaborated Biblical and theological vision for mission, Dreher’s advice to “head for the hills” arises from a cultural analysis patterned after a fundamentalist-like isolationism: sanctification by separation.
In effect, Dreher’s proposal is at heart reactionary rather than missional, and begs the question: if the culture is too hostile now, how will such hostility be mitigated if Christians drift aside in their communal arks? What will make the flood waters recede so Christians may return? Smith suggests rather hopefully that “the clamour of opposition to Christianity” may just be “a mask for the hunger that is already there,” and so “we have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization.” So stay the course.
Too polemical to be Canadian
This also begs the question: is “post-Christian culture” as debauched as Dreher claims? There is a growing literature on “post-secular” society and that offers a more hopeful future for Christians. It appears Dreher has bought into the secularization myth, a theory that was all the rage with secular sociologists up until the 1980s, at which point they suddenly noticed Islam, charismatic Christianity and the explosion of the Christian South in Africa, Asia and South America. Sociologist Rodney Stark’s seminal article “Secularization, R.I.P” (1999) and Peter Berger’s book entitled Desecularization in the same year suggest secularity is a vocal minority – perched in the academy, media and certain political parties.
Not that things are all chipper for Christian formation. Young people are leaving the church and “religious nones” are the fastest growing “religious” group in North America. Orthodox believers who work in medicine, higher education and the arts will constantly feel the chill of secular disdain and censure if they reveal their faith. There is a crisis, but we must remember it was God who sent the flood, not the secular left of Noah’s day, and God promised he would never send a flood again. Ironically, it’s the rainbow that offers us hope to stay engaged with our prodigal culture.
Dreher’s plan betrays a cultural polarization and polemics characteristic of the U.S. While Canada is more secularized in many ways, and one might argue that public institutions are more hostile to Christianity up here, the feelings of being persecuted may not be as acute. We have been a marginalized voice for a longer period of time and have not had the pretense of a Moral Majority. So we don’t carry the same sense of failure, loss and embarrassment. Immigrant Christians, whether Dutch or otherwise, don’t feel the loss of power and privilege that Dreher assumes for (mostly white) evangelicals in the States.
Dreher’s Option – and an option it must remain – can sound like fearful retreat from the public arena at a time when Reformed scholars are pressing for a public theology based in a robust Christian subculture. Pastor and professor David Fitch argues for faithful presence, and Canadian John Stackhouse humbly suggests Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (2008). It’s a chastened role in the thick of cultural disorientation; but it could feel familiar. Dreher looks to the late 5th century, but the 1st century church was also a small, marginalized subculture. It had no memory of cultural power, and it persisted in proclaiming the peace of Christ to all nations.
Mourning lost privilege
Post-Christendom is in part the deliberate rejection of the Christian faith as an inspiration for cultural life in North America. This includes a loss of privilege, and the concurrent experience of being ignored, vilified or misunderstood. White Christians like Dreher may need to acknowledge a sense of loss, and maybe even a perceived hurt. When Steeples Cry: Leading Congregations Through Loss and Change by Jaco Hamman, a book addressing the deep sense of loss experienced in the shrinking mainline congregations. He hopes to help congregants recognize the force of their grief and lead them into mourning, which he defines as “the intentional process of letting go relationships, dreams and visions as your congregation lives into a new identity after the experience of loss and change.” Mourning, he says, is a creative response to grief.
The legalization of same sex marriage was the battle of “Waterloo of religious conservatism” according to Dreher. He uses the phrase “religious conservatism” here because conservative Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus (and even atheists!) would also share his lament. But they are never mentioned anywhere in the book. The orthodox Jews are presented as a model for community and religious education, but as Emma Green of The Atlantic explains, conservative Christians cannot compare their “minority” status and perceived persecution to that of the Jews. Conservative Christians come from a place of power, a position that has eluded Jewish people for two millennia.
Green argues that Dreher’s overstates the “catastrophic” nature of the “disordered sexuality” of our day when he predicts that “entire areas of commercial and professional life” are now off-limits to believers is over-stated. She suspects the BenOp is “just as much about getting away from gay people as it is affirming the tenets of Christianity.” Some will find his views the equivalent of racist, she claims, and true to his fears, fewer and fewer public spaces will be open to his ilk.
Green offers an important question for BenOp affiliates: “How should Christians be in fellowship with people unlike them – including those who feel aggrieved by the church and its teaching?” She concludes, “Many people, including some Christians, feel that knowing, befriending, playing with and learning alongside people who are different from them adds to their faith, not that it threatens it . . . Dreher’s monastery walls may be too high.”
Your salvation depends on your neighbour
Leslie Newbigin said our salvation always depends on our neighbour – whether in proclaiming the gospel to us or in the eschatological teaching that Christ will not return until all the nations have received a gospel invitation. I would add that our sanctification depends on constant engagement with our neighbours – they keep us accountable and always reforming. Peter learned something new by following the Spirit to the pagan Cornelius’ home. It is only the “unredeemed ego in each of us” that prefers a direct relationship with God apart from our neighbour.
At the most secret and central place of our being, do we not constantly want to be in the position where we do not have to be debtor to any other man? We ask: ‘Why should I have to go there? Why should I have to do that? Why should I have to depend upon them for the salvation of my soul? Cannot God deal with me directly without bringing another person, another religion, another culture into the business?’ The answer is that he can but will not. His purpose is precisely to break open that shell of egotism in which you are imprisoned since Adam first fell and to give you back the new nature which is content to owe the debt of love to all men. And so God deals with us through one another (A Faith For This One World, 79.)
Rather than turning inward, God calls us to be otherwise, to “otherliness,” to be cosmopolitan (world citizens) in our associations.
Dreher invokes Noah and the flood, but I wonder if Dreher himself resembles Jonah, running away from the secular, immoral Nineveh of the West? He insists that the BenOp is ultimately a matter of love and engagement and not “a plan for constructing communities of the pure, cut off from the real world,” but the abundance of superlatives like “greatest danger,” “catastrophic” and “a world growing cold, dead and dark” are certainly pessimistic, suggesting he might have hopped a cargo ship to Tarshish. Dreher says in subsequent publications that critics like Jamie Smith are too optimistic, and fail to recognize the collapse of Christian civilization. Someone needs to sound the alarm. “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization,” he warns.
He may be right when it comes to the West. But we worship a God of resurrection, and a messy, dialogical pluralism remains our best missional strategy. Our world still belongs to God, and all the people who dwell within it (Ps. 24). Dreher’s monastic program could be seen as a temptation in the face of (conservative) Christian humiliation. It’s a temptation to be resisted.