By Abigail Woolley
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?” Matt Boulter’s essay followed on: “The Rule of Benedict: Opting for Christian community.” Look forward to Fr. Robert Hendrickson’s essay two weeks from now.
At the beginning of my junior year of college, I decided I would be happier and healthier if I got up every day at 6 a.m. I announced my plan to my roommates and stuck with it pretty faithfully. I went to bed by 10 and woke up at 6. I prayed, read Hemingway, and finished, if not all my homework, at least a higher percentage than before.
I soon discovered, however, that the social life of the college apartments was at its peak between 10 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., and I was being left out of it all. Unsurprisingly, I eventually abandoned my lovely sleep schedule, and spent those late-night hours forging some of the best friendships of my life.
We all know how hard it is to maintain a lifestyle in isolation. And since our actions are tied to our very beliefs, it’s nearly impossible for beliefs to thrive without a group of people living them out together. Peter Berger, recognizing this phenomenon, called these social systems “plausibility structures,” since they help us to envision the reality underlying our beliefs and to see their logic as they play out. If a way of life is not shared, however, the beliefs that ground it soon begin to seem unreasonable, and it becomes extremely hard to maintain.
It is with this in mind that I read The Benedict Option. I think of how American Christians, often focused on “Jesus and me,” have been tempted to take for granted the social aspect of their faith. White Protestants, especially, have long been able to move through mainstream America while feeling little conflict between their faith expressions and dominant society. They could ignore the need for a distinctive Christian community because something approximating Christianity, at least, was all around. As I see it, the “culture wars” became such a desperate project precisely because Christians had allowed the United States to be their plausibility structure. How could a Christian way of life remain persuasive if the nation couldn’t keep it as the norm?
Well, says Rod Dreher, wake up and smell the decay. That time is over and gone. Continued culture wars won’t bring it back. “Values voters” need to let go of their hope that the Republican Party has their interests at heart.
Instead, now more than ever, Christians need to recognize our need for set-apart communities of solidarity. Those who have been comfortable in mainstream America need to admit that the mainstream just won’t cut it. And we need to stop trying to take it back.
Using the Benedictine monks at Norcia as his central model, Dreher says we must focus on rediscovering and embodying authentic Christian life from the inside. He tells stories of other Christians who are working creatively to reinvigorate their churches’ Christian formation, deepen their ties to ancient liturgy, establish classical Christian schools, and commit to intentional communities.
Most of this sounds pretty sensible to me. It was a mistake for Christians to be comfortable assuming the U.S. government could guarantee their way of life. It is becoming increasingly difficult to operate in society with a traditional conscience. And desperately electing candidates like Trump is not going to help. In fact, as widely troubling as he is, I wouldn’t be surprised if religious conservatives feel a merciless backlash when he’s gone.
So when Andrew Petiprin claims that “simple, lived traditionalism cannot be suppressed,” I have to disagree. Maybe top-down “suppression” isn’t the issue as much as horizontal forces. Distinct Christian ways of life can’t be sustained if they’re not shared. The reality is that the “man and woman holding hands,” whom Petiprin envisions, are having a harder time even finding each other in divided and dwindling Christian communities. To find and afford adequate education for those “many” kids, they likely have to go to a great deal of effort. As often as they uproot for jobs, they struggle to keep ties to relatives and close friends. They might even be starting to think about whether their careers will allow them to abide by their consciences in the long run. Christians really do need to go increasingly out of their way to live a life they believe is good and beautiful. And if they have to do it alone, they’ll struggle to keep their joy.
In a way, Dreher’s book repeats some familiar stories, as Matt Boulter noted last week. He calls to mind Robert Putnam’s story of “social capital” breakdown, Stanley Hauerwas’s insistence that the Church must stand out and “be the Church,” New Monasticism’s justice-oriented community-building, Robert Webber and James K. A. Smith’s success in drawing Protestants’ attention to liturgy, and new ecumenical interest in patristic and medieval theology. Dreher draws from Alisdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Brad Gregory, and others, who have tried to explain why Christianity no longer unites Western societies. Many of these movements have referred to each other, sensing something in common.
The time was ripe for a tuned-in popular writer to channel all these impulses into one practical agenda for Christians. I have already started recommending The Benedict Option, because it does a convincing job of this.
But I only recommend it for Dreher’s intended audience: Christian social conservatives who are at their wits’ end following apparent defeat in the culture wars. These are the readers whose trust Dreher will earn by taking their most cherished issues seriously. Furthermore, Dreher’s agenda is likely the best possible way forward for these Christians: it provides a new vision in place of disillusionment, refocuses them on local culture-making, urges them to recover authentically Christian liturgical forms, encourages them to seek racial and ethnic diversity, and invites them to recover a Christian collective memory that goes back before 1950, 1776, or even 1517. If these things happen on a large scale, praise the Lord.
On the other hand, I do find something important missing from the book. Dreher’s telling of history, distilled mainly from MacIntyre and Taylor, is focused on how the world went wrong. Yet, for MacIntyre and Taylor, the secularization narratives are all-inclusive: they aren’t particularly addressing Christians, and they want to explain how all of us — including religious people — got where we are. Dreher, in contrast, is content to ascribe the problems of modernity to the world outside the Church (seeming to say, Here’s why the world around you is so off-kilter). He does not seem interested in exploring where Christians may be internally caught up in the forces of modernity — especially the global market. We don’t see in Dreher a theme that is prominent in Taylor: how Christianity has changed over the centuries, embodying “disenchantment” and “mechanization” right along with the atheists. Dreher identifies threats from disordered sexuality and addiction to technology, but he doesn’t consider how the objectifying forces in each are linked to the idea of humans as atomized creatures of impersonal exchange.
How might it help if he did? Dreher clearly wants his account of sexual ethics to be persuasive, and while it’s an important part of the book, he doesn’t want it to come across as the focal point. He also doesn’t want to be accused of encouraging Christians to abandon other justice issues. In both these areas, he would do better if he showed that sexuality and technology are both caught up in the structures of impersonal economic exchange — and we are, too. Furthermore, he could have linked sexuality and economic justice in a conservative vision, reminding his readers how stable family systems, and the hospitality and generosity they make possible, make sense precisely as part of a traditional Christian strategy for making sure everyone is provided for.
This oversight does weaken Dreher’s project. It means he fails to capture the imagination of those who do see dehumanizing market forces as one of the biggest spiritual problems facing Christians. And his take on the import of sexuality remains too predictable — either to locate conservatives’ concerns in a broader context or to bring others into the conversation.
Dreher does not expose one of the biggest ways Christians are uncritically entangled in modernity. But let’s not forget: his whole agenda is one of disentangling. This is why I’m still hopeful that Benedict Option Christians might find themselves getting disentangled in ways they don’t expect.
Could it be that those who make an effort to retrieve ancient Christian teachings, as Dreher urges, will realize along the way that they have too zealously defended their private property? If they loosen ties to the Republican Party to focus on modeling morality in local communities, will they surprise themselves by noticing effects of American business interests on foreign policy (effects they have previously dismissed)? If they need to step back from white-collar professions for reasons of conscience, will they accidentally gain a different perspective on the economy while moving down its rungs? If they take up a new place on the margins, will they discover common cause with those who have been there all along?
These hopes are why, in spite of its blind spots, I will go on recommending The Benedict Option to traditional Christians. May it free the Church to find new integrity as the Church — especially if it has consequences Dreher & Co. don’t expect.
Abigail Woolley lives in Dallas, Texas, where she is pursuing a PhD in Christian ethics at Southern Methodist University. She is a member of Church of the Incarnation.