By Matt Boulter
Editor’s note: David Brooks has called Rod Dreher’s new volume The Benedict Option “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” We’re taking a close look at his work in this online symposium. The first take came from Andrew Petiprin: “Is the argument lost?” Look forward to more essays on successive Wednesdays.
Rod Dreher’s aim in The Benedict Option is to raise urgent issues and sow imaginative seeds for the future. He rightly sees that “liquid modernity” — especially in its consumeristic, market-driven guise — is sifting Western culture and the Church within it like wheat. What to do? Instead of freaking out or “hunkering down” in isolation, Dreher calls us to go forward by way going back, back to the ancient paths of Benedictine spirituality. Only by embracing and implementing something like Benedict’s Rule can Christians in the contemporary West hope to pass down to their children the true, holistic shalom (peace) that we have in Christ and in the body of Christ.
Not only do I endorse the book, but it may well end up saving my life. So, while appreciating both the spirit and substance of Andrew Petiprin’s analysis, I want to put my own thoughts in dialogue with his by addressing three dimensions of Dreher’s book: audience, diagnosis, and remedy.
Dreher addresses folks who have “self-identified” in the last few decades as members of the Religious Right. That is, the putative reader of the book is probably one who voted Republican in the last few elections, likely participating in the “Reagan Revolution” that began in the 1980s. For me, this is the most irritating aspect of the book, for I have not seen myself as a member of this group since I was a child. In fact, I distinctly remember an intense feeling of nausea (barely in my 20s) when Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America won the day in the midterm elections of 1994. Suffice to say, at no point as an adult have I been a member of the Christian Right or even the partisan Right. I abandoned any hope for the “culture wars” right around the time I was old enough to vote.
So when I read Dreher calling on evangelicals to abandon the strategy of the culture wars, I want to give him a high five, congratulating him for what the most penetrating theologians and cultural commentators have been saying for decades. At the deepest level, adding Bible-believing Christians to Congress is not what our world needs. With Dreher, I’d say that at the deepest level the world needs for the Church to “be the Church.”
What, in turn, does that look like? It looks like being “for the world against the world” (pro mundum contra mundum). In a nation-state in which the founding architects such as Thomas Jefferson were Deists trying to privatize religion, what is needed is more contra mundum, relatively speaking.
It’s clear that the typical American Episcopalian is manifestly not a member of Dreher’s audience. If right-wing culture warriors are the Pharisees of our time, then contemporary Episcopalians (assuming that there are some still around) are modern-day Sadducees. We are a church that habitually “goes along to get along,” especially if we can maintain a vague and pretentious veneer of power. In Victorian England this was dysfunctional enough; in liquid modernity it’s a recipe for holistic suicide. The uphshot of this is that, while rolls of Episcopal parishes are populated more by aging secular liquid modernists than by fuddy-duddy right-wingers, nevertheless, Dreher’s prescription of Benedictine spirituality is something our church needs. Thankfully, our sacramental bearings just might predispose us in favor of it.
Dreher is surely right, not just about liquid modernity, but also about how we got here (the contents of chapter 2). I might quibble with some details or articulate them differently, but the narrative Dreher presents — beginning with late medieval nominalism, traversing the Enlightenment’s incipient version of “public reason,” and ending with the current celebration of “identity construction” — is surely correct in outline. If you resonate with Alisdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, Charles Taylor, James K.A. Smith, or David Bentley Hart, then you ought to agree. If this rendition is accurate, then Dreher’s remedy, to which I now turn, should be embraced.
What is the therapeutic remedy? It consists of a required core regimen (prudent application of the Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 3) and then a few other “suggested” correctives (such as pulling our kids out of public schools, and despairing of engagement in certain professions, such as secular academia, chapters 7 and 8, respectively). The former is surely uncontroversial, and obviously what matters most in the book; the latter is a bit more open to protest. But since these actions are suggestions, one can embrace the Benedict Option without buying into every specific, hook, line, and sinker.
On a personal level — keeping in mind that Dreher rightly wants to deconstruct the difference between the private and the public — reading this book convicted me to make several changes in my life, to take multiple steps of repentance. I’ve begun to read stories from Church history to my daughters, ages 9 and 13, when I tuck them in at night. More “out of my comfort zone” was my decision to take active steps to build more intimate relationships with the parents of my 13-year-old’s friends. The way I’m currently processing the Rule, I’d regard the former as a move toward deeper order, and the latter as a step in the direction of a more grounded stability. (Order and stability are two emphases of the Rule that Dreher brings out in chapter 3. More order and more stability are desperate needs of mine: in my pastoral ministry, in my family, and in my soul and body.)
To conclude, I fear that many “progressives” — the name Rachel Held Evans comes to mind — will continue to react to Dreher’s project with what can only be called a “gag reflex,” which is unfortunate. Such responses fall short of the posture of loving openness to which Christ calls us, and Dreher’s proposal is chock full of wisdom that transcends the left-right divide. Thankfully, Fr. Petiprin does not fall prey to this error. On the contrary, he seems closer to Dreher’s conservative posture than I am. It is strange, then, that I apparently embrace the Benedict Option more than he does. Perhaps that is because of my fundamental rejection of any and all secular means (including “conservative” means) as an attempt to reform our liquidly modern culture.
Instead, we must say no to the current cultural manifestation of the world in order, at a deeper level, to say yes to it. This is how we are simultaneously pro mundum contra mundum. Strict adherence to any set of Benedict Option details is far less important than a determined commitment on the part of orthodox Christians — across the lines of the various traditions or denominations — to take some kind of intentional step in the direction of Benedictine faith and practice. Dreher’s thoughtful project opens new vistas of imagination, making it possible for us to do just that.
The Rev. Matt Boulter is a PhD student in medieval philosophy at the University of Dallas, and community pastor at Christ Church South in Tyler, Texas. He loves reading, running, drinking, smoking, and hanging out with his three brown-eyed girls.