David Brooks has called Rod Dreher’s new volume The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel, 2017) “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” In the next several weeks, Covenant contributors and guests will look at Dreher’s work closely in an online symposium. Look forward to more essays on successive Wednesdays.
Rod Dreher’s writings were a breath of fresh air when I first encountered them. I saw something of my family life in his “crunchy cons.” We homeschool. We don’t have cable. We eat organic food. We pray together. I pastor a small but growing congregation that is already something of a world within a world. We do traditional liturgy and have a community garden in the heart of the most popular tourist destination on earth. We specialize in things the world doesn’t do, and it brings us and others joy. I have eagerly awaited The Benedict Option, which is an encouragement for Christians to differentiate from the culture and prepare for spiritual exile. Is Dreher right, or is he just telling people like me what we want to hear instead of what we need to hear?
“The public square has been lost,” Dreher declares. At the same time, the Church “no longer forms souls but caters to selves.” Dreher’s “strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation” is a rejection of the dominant Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that is in the spiritual water. Likewise, he challenges decades-old Christian wisdom of an American “moral majority,” which will put things to rights if allowed to rule.
In Chapter 2, Dreher takes us on a whirlwind tour of intellectual history from Scholasticism to the Sexual Revolution. He concludes, “There is no hope of halting our dissolution.” The phrase “no hope” appears earlier in the volume and pops up again later; it is worrisome.
In Chapter 3 we learn about St. Benedict of Nursia, whose retreat from late-Roman imperial society helped keep the fire of faith and learning alight for future generations. We hear a bit about Benedict’s rule of life, and we meet today’s monks of Norcia who live by it. We are invited to a life of prayer that is “a sign of contradiction to the modern world.”
Chapter 4 takes us back to politics, and a concern to secure religious liberty amid pluralism. Christians must champion a reboot of local affinity and decision-making.
In Chapters 5 and 6 we learn that churches need to be churchier, walking a fine line to avoid a stifling strictness that breeds rebellion. In Chapter 7, Dreher tells us that classical Christian schools are the best hope for forming faithful children. Chapter 8 may be the most helpful section of the book, advocating everyday prudence and courage for typical Christians who have no choice but to interact most of the time with a world gone mad. Chapters 9 and 10 are Dreher’s description of post-human pseudo-life. Scary stuff.
Dreher quotes the millennial First Things contributor Leah Libresco Sargeant, who likes the Benedict Option, but whose remarks perhaps unintentionally reveal Dreher’s partly misplaced zeal:
People are like, “This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being a Christian, right?” And I’m like, “Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!”
Sargeant’s comment captures a weariness in me that has replaced some of my former enthusiasm for Dreher’s ideas. In the last few years I have largely agreed with Dreher on the state of culture and the Church. Now I want to consider other options. I am a pessimist; but I am not ready to throw up my hands and abandon the public square. On plenty of days I expect the world to start looking more like a George Miller movie at any minute. If the apocalypse comes, it comes. But really, anything could happen, and the political landscape is much messier than Dreher acknowledges.
A great example from The Benedict Option both affirms Dreher’s small-scale strategy and challenges his large assumptions: the Czech resistance under communism. Dreher looks to the Václavs — Havel and Benda, that is — to reiterate for the umpteenth time that “the culture war as we knew it is over.” He continues, “absent a miracle, there is no hope of reversing this condition in the foreseeable future.” Again, no hope? On the contrary, for Christians there is only hope, which is unseen.
Havel and Benda hunkered down in Czechoslovakia. They wrote, built networks, and agitated. They created a democratic (and Catholic) subculture that waited out the end of communism. The end was nowhere in sight when, in breathtaking succession, Karol Wojtyla became the Pope of Rome and Ronald Reagan became president of the United States. In the late 1970s, the democratic world had largely resigned itself to the notion that Soviet communism was there to stay. But it wasn’t. Things change. Miracles happen.
Dreher walks us down a now familiar, dark path. But is he lighting a candle or cursing the darkness? It’s hard to tell sometimes. Philosophical impoverishment, activist jargon, and laboratory innovation have all undermined the basics of natural law; but again, is the argument totally lost? Simple, lived traditionalism cannot be suppressed. Every man and woman holding hands, wearing wedding rings, and hugging their (many) kids says to the world that maybe the biblical vision is better than alternatives after all. Every family with adopted children will show the world a better way than both abortion and IVF. Every Christian who goes to his deathbed naturally, and eager to see the Lord, tells the world that living forever is God’s gift, not a science project.
If, in the decades to come, Christian priests are jailed for hate speech, Dreher’s book may prove prophetic. In the meantime, let’s strengthen our little platoons, yes. And let’s engage. I give thanks for Dreher’s contribution to the discussion, and at the same time I know that his strategy is not the only one on offer. The idea for the Benedict Option comes originally from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a magnificent book that is worth the effort to read for yourself. And four other, more recent books approach the same cultural crises that haunt Dreher, but with more hope at their core: Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic, James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, Roger Scruton’s Our Church, and R.R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. I plan to put each of these works in dialogue with Dreher’s Benedict Option in future essays.
As I closed The Benedict Option, I felt myself a little bit wiser as a serpent, but wanting to be a little more innocent as a dove. As Muriel Hemingway says to Woody Allen at the end of Manhattan: “Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.” And in God.