The Benedict Option was written by Rod Dreher, raised a Methodist, but who converted to Roman Catholicism and laterally to Eastern Orthodoxy. He writes very much as a Christian, as only a self-taught believer, and outsider can, I think. His approach is frank, his answers are hard ones, and his approach is studied and deep. He writes to serious fellow-Christian laymen, and any conservative fellow-travellers who are wiling to listen to him.
The phrase ‘the Benedict Option’ comes from Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book, ;After Virture, and the ‘Benedict’ in question, is the sixth-century Benedict of Nursia.
My approach is to outline the book in four parts, his description of the current problem, the false solutions, his explanation for the origin of the problem, and then his proposed solution, whilst trying to be as fair and just as possible.
The Benedict Option: The Problem Described
No punches are pulled here, no lipstick applied. This problem is a flood, not a local flood, but a Noah-and-his-family type-one. For him, the floodgates have already burst, and there is no amount of fingers in dikes which will suffice to staunch the flow, as the whole dike has been broken down. It’s not just a flood, it’s also an earthquake, only the first wave of a tectonic realignment of Western socieity.
What’s the nature of this tsunami? It’s moral, religious, philosophical and affects the whole of society. In isn’t just about politics, but in his view, the Obergefell decision on transgender rights marks a point-of-no-return. With this political decision, with the merger of state and corporate interests, the public square has been lost, in his studied view. Moreover, the general public accommodation to this ruling indicates that there is no longer a ‘silent majority’ of culturally conservative Americans backing the Christians, we are on our own now. He calls the whole of The Western World ‘Post-Christian.’
The problem, sadly, is not confined only to wider society, the world of big business and the institutions of civil government. We have seen the enemy, and it is us! The churches, mainline and conservative, Protestant or Roman Catholic are no longer sanctuaries for the faithful, but instead temples of MTD, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Neither clergy nor laity, teachers or practitioners of MTD are receptive to the serious Christians who see the glaring faults in society at large. Indeed, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the dominant religion in all of America, inside and outside the churches. Both the open advocates of the new morality, the new definitions of sexuality and moral relativism, worship at the same altar as all the complacent churchgoers, the altar of MTD. Other than MTD, the churches are almost entirely free of Christian doctrine of any kind, a kind of scorched-earth for any trace of orthodoxy. He points to Lutheran Germany, where even the memory that it was once a Christian nation has almost entirely passed from public consciousness. Even in Christian schools, which ought to pass on the Christian faith there is a near-vacuum of substantial doctrinal content.
The False Solutions
Rob Dreher doesn’t hate Trump, but he does see the problem. The problem is that Trump, and voting for Republicans won’t cut it. Seeking a political solution to what is a cultural problem of long date is putting a sticking-plaster on a gaping chest wound. Deep problems require profound solutions. Despite the clear inadequacy of Trump, he records that 81% of evangelicals and 52% of Catholics voted for The Donald. Voting for conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, and other expediencies will not cut it either.
As already noted, a retreat to the churches is not enough, the rot is too deep, the churches, and wider culture are largely indistinguishable, Mr. Dreher rejects the existence of any middle-ground between the church and the world, and calls for a more radical solution than mere politics or judicial shuffling-around.
The Benedict Option, What is it?
What is Mr. Dreher’s solution, then? Despite a lot of qualifications, his solution is monasticism, or, better yet, monasticism, but not quite monasticism, sort of. After all, The Benedict Option’s Benedict of Nursia, was the ascetic’s ascetic, and was THE father of Western Christian Monasticism.
Is there a flood? Well, let us run away and build up our own dikes around ourselves and our own! Instead of tilting at federal windmills, we should orientate ourselves in a local area, and concern ourselves with our own localities, where options for service and action are without limit. Where possible, Christian families should strive to live close together, to be able to live and feast together, rather than simply being a virtual social network.
Once in the community, local networks of Christian families should create ‘parallel institutions’ or a ‘parallel polis,’ which operates in terms of the truth of God. This may start with forming a new church, or simply forming a group of like-minded folks within your existing church. Your communal activities don’t have to be deep and theological, just meet together and be Christians!
One of the key institutions he recommends founding is a school, a Christian school, specifically a Classical Christian School. It’s only the fact of living together in close proximity that can provide the social capital to found a school. Homeschooling is good, but the social dimension, and the classics, he feels, will provide the needed backbone, a sense of a link to the past, that will root the children, and give them the heroes they need to propagate the faith into the future. Parents and teachers should teach themselves the doctrines of the faith, using nasty modern technology to get classic books delivered to them, and pass on that faith to their children. Our homes as Christians, must be like domestic monasteries.
His vision. however, is not just that of a separate and pure ecclesiastical institution, but one encompassing artists and scholars, and others. He sees the importance of not just an academic training, but a practical preparation of the young for work outside the anti-Christian corporate world. He’s keen for schools and communities to foster entrepreneurship, and create businesses where Christians can find gainful employment without having to bow the knee to Caesar’s latest diktats.
He even looks ahead to the creating a Christian academic counter culture. As to individual denominations, his advice is to reach out to all serious-minded believers from all church backgrounds, provided they be serious about the faith.
Before institutions can be built, however, the individual must be built up. The inner life of man must be established in Christ, by prayer and meditation, reading the words of the old saints. The individualism typical of evangelicalism must be rejected, in favour of a more community-focus.
A vital plank of The Benedict Option is the Rule of Benedict, a booklet consisting of seventy-three short chapters, or paragraphs, and the reading of the Lectio Divina. Despite the monastic nature of Dreher’s proposed alternative, he reject quietism, and calls instead for Christian formation to prepare the young people for the harsh realities of the ourwpde world.
Negatively, Mr. Dreher counsels ejecting your smartphone and such technology from your life as far as is practicable. Technology, he insists, is not morally neutral. Technology is making is malleable, and less able to think past the moment.
Some Problems with The Benedict Option
I really like this book. I think I would really get on well with Mr. Dreher should I have the opportunity to barbecue with him one day. However, I look at the book and find myself wincing in pain, it’s as if he went about strewing lego on his carpet to prevent himself from stubbing his toe on the furniture.
His great strength is that he is a sincere, self-studied, principled Christian conservative. His great weakness, in my humble opinion, is his sincere devotion to some of humanistic accretions to Christianity which have embedded themselves like parasites in the body of first, the Roman Catholic Church, and second the Eastern Orthodox folks.
His assessment of the seriousness of the problem facing The West is facing is excellent. He pulls no punches about it, this is a flood! His practical advice about starting Christian schools, living near to like-minded Christians, taking practical steps to live outside the corporate world, forming businesses to help employ our brothers is excellent. His championing of local involvement, of living as a parallel polis is excellent. Also, his assessment of the church and even most Christian schools is frank and accurate, in my humble opinion. There is so much to like here, but… ouch! Lego! Pain! Little plastic land-mines lies everywhere, strewn in with the buried treasure.
Despite his wide-ranging flow through history and philosophy, pointing to false philosophies, not democrat politicians as being responsible for our current, deep malaise, he insists on baking the seeds of these false and destructive doctrines into the cake of his Christian faith, and then passes it ‘round to the children to eat and digest.
When he maintains that Christianity emerged from the confluence of Hebrew Religion, Greek philosophy and Roman law he describes the history of unreformed syncretism which has given us this present flood, which he rightly laments. He incorporates Plato, tutor of the thirty tyrants of Greece, father of totalitarianism, into his Classical Christian curriculum, and complains of a malaise in politics.
Having once incorporated Hebrew religion, Greek philosophy and Roman law into his ‘christianity,’ any solution offered in terms of this faith will bear the disharmonious, qualities of these rival faiths.
We see this in his advocacy of monasticism on the one hand, and marriage and the family on the other. Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism advocate both institutions, but, since monasticism, the formal forbidding of marriage for religious reasons is of pagan, diabolical origins, it must of necessity be at odds with the Biblical institution of the family. The forbidding of marriage for religious reasons, along with other ascetic practices are roundly rejected by Scripture, and nowhere encouraged as an ideal. To aim to turn family homes into ‘domestic monasteries’ is to divide something by nothing, and can only result in a division by zero error, lots of heat, but sadly, no light.
Again, having once adopted paganism in the form of Plato and Aristotle, with their view of God as a limiting concept only, into his ‘Christianity’ a kind of Gresham’s law is seen to be at work, with bad doctrine driving out good. For the Greeks, evil was metaphysical, in things, whereas Christ locates the seat of evil in the human heart. Hence his rather curious superstition that technology-in-itself is not morally neutral. The use of technology is most certainly NOT morally neutral, but to ascribe moral qualities to things-in-themselves is, I submit, pagan, superstitious animism.
Once again, let me emphasise that I like this book, it weighs the issues, and treats the current crisis with sufficient gravity. Much of the advice is very sound. His thesis, however, rests on a doctrinal foundation of sand, or better, thin air. Having defined his faith in terms of Greek and Roman thinking, plus the Bible, and having nailed his colours to the mast in favour of ‘Classical Christian’ schools, together with a raft of ascetic practices, he has formalised his syncretism into a system. Not quite a system, since paganism and The Word of God, being by nature antithetical to one another, cannot long exist together. The Benedict option, is not an option, it is halfway house to a fuller, more self-conscious paganism, or a more rounded and coherent Biblical system. The rule of Benedict cannot bind together what God has forever separated.
I want to accept his diagnosis that the churches are not places for serious Christians to be, nor are many Christian schools, and accept that the culture is thoroughly hostile to the Christian faith, but differ with him as to the solutions.
Institutionally, Mr. Dreher points to Benedict as the example of a Christian response to the fall of Rome. But, it was far from the only response, and was, in fact, a departure from the norm, not to mention the fact that being a hermit is a pagan practice, not a Christian one. God has given us an institutional solution, the church! This is not to ex-post-facto justify all that present-day churches do, and hanker for the good-old-days of Christian meetings, and sing-songs. This is a call to reform in accordance with the Word of God. It was the Church in the Roman empire which was a ‘parallel polis’ ‘Imperium in Imperio.’ It judged disputes between believers, and functioned as a parallel legal system, even for many pagans. It provided welfare, jobs for the jobless, education, and more. Together with that was the Christian family. The need of the day is to return, not to some idealised ‘early church,’ but, to take Mr. Dreher’s advice, and educate ourselves in the faith, including the works of the early church fathers that we might once again govern through service, in Christ.
There is no doubt much wisdom in the Rule of Benedict, and likely much advice best avoided. We emphatically do not need to follow either Benedict’s book, or his Lectio Divina. What we desperately do need, as per the author’s complaint, need to become literate Christians, learn the faith, and work to pass it on. Our only rule of faith is the scripture contained in the Old and New Testaments. With all due respect to Mr. Dreher, we have the solution, all of scripture, for all of life.
This is, of course, an easy rhetorical out, with a wave of my hand I dismiss his treatise, and poof! the problems are still there. The challenge remains, however, are we wiling to subject ourselves to Christ as king? Are we willing to tithe to works seeking to build alternative curricula? Are we wiling to support Christian scholarship, or simply move five, ten, or five hundred miles down the road to be with like-minded Christians? I do recommend that the serious Christian read this book, take notes, and ignore everything tainted with the leprosy of paganism. Let’s even humbly accept his critique of evangelicalism, and humbly build new churches, new wineskins, for the new wine of God, by his grace and in his power alone.