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The Benedict Option

by Berry Friesen (March 17, 2017)

For some, giving up on the USA is a pathway to despair and cynicism.  For others, it is a pathway to recovery and hope.

Rod Dreher is on the second pathway.  He demonstrates this in The Benedict Option, his new book that is creating a major buzz within Christian circles, no matter what their stripe.

I discovered Dreher ten years ago when I read Crunchy Cons, his book about people whose “small Is beautiful” style of conservative politics puts them at odds with the Republicans and sometimes to the left of the Democrats.  John K. Stoner and I quote that book in the concluding chapter of If Not Empire, What?

Six months ago, I started reading Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative because I was eager to hear from an engaged and conservative Christian who refused to support Donald Trump.  I’ve been reading Dreher regularly ever since, in part because he identifies as a “resistance” writer. He even goes so far as to speak of “the American empire,” as in this quote from an interview with Plough Quarterly:

“Our first loyalty is to the church, not to American empire. I want to encourage and cultivate faithful Christian resistance.” 

Recently, Dreher has been blogging mainly about his new book, The Benedict Option, named in honor of Benedict of Nursia, the 6th century monk.  During the years immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E., St. Benedict established twelve religious communities for monks in Italy.  His Rule of St. Benedict became the guide for the establishment of thousands of other religious communities across Europe during the Middle Ages; these communities in turn kept alive critical aspects of Christianity and classical civilization during a time of widespread ignorance and social disintegration.

Dreher describes “the Ben Op” this way:

“I am not advocating an Amish-style withdrawal from the world (though I respect those who feel called to it, and wish them well). That will not be the path for most of us, nor, in my view, should it be.

“I am calling for more of a conscious ‘exile in place’ for the church—that is, for the kind of Christians I call small-O orthodox Christians. Some people may need to physically move for this kind of community, but in most cases (I think) it will be a matter of deepening one’s commitments to one’s own tradition and the church community in which it is embodied, and in thickening the bonds among the community’s members. This requires a clear understanding that our first loyalty is to the church, not to American empire.

“People are struggling to know what to do. I have kids of my own, and I am not content to sit back and accept what the empire has planned for them. I want to encourage and cultivate faithful Christian resistance.”

When Dreher details what the empire has in mind for us and our children, he rarely refers to wars of aggression abroad.  To state the obvious, Dreher and I blog about different things.  Yet we both are acutely aware of two things:  (a) the way empires (including the US-led one in which we reside) render competing worldviews incomprehensible and illegitimate; and (b) that biblically-inspired faith is counter-culture.  This creates a lot of common ground between us.

Of course, the US-led empire claims to protect religious faith and its leaders often evoke religious themes.  Furthermore, here in the US we have just completed a presidential election in which the religious sensibility of conservative Christians was the decisive factor in electing the winning candidate.  So this is an odd time to be speaking of Christianity as a resistance movement.

What exactly is Dreher calling Christians to resist?

Mostly, the dominant religion of the empire—what Dreher calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD).  It posits a loving god whose core demand is that we be good, nice and fair to each other.  It views the central goals of life as happiness and a positive feeling about ourselves.  It assures us that if we are good, we will go to heaven when we die (and if we’re not good, we still might get there because god is love).  Though it uses the language of religion, it rarely insists on anything a secularist would find objectionable. Indeed, behind the religious language, MTD regards human subjectivity—me, my experience, the expression of my heartfelt desires—as the ultimate measure of all things.

We judge god, in other words; god does not judge us.

This is all very different from orthodox Christianity, which gives us a transcendent god who says we are lost sinners in need of repentance, self-denial and transformation to the way of Jesus.  According to Dreher, this difference has been playing out over the past fifty years as the sexual revolution has swept through Western societies, taking most of the church along with it.

“The Ben-Op” is Dreher’s response.  It is designed not to save America, but to keep lit within America the flame of orthodox Christian faith.  On this much depends, Dreher insists, just as in the 6th century much depended on the fragile flame of St. Benedict’s religious communities.  Yes, this includes a Christian understanding of sexuality, but it also includes other counter-cultural values:  self-sacrifice; the dignity of labor and productive work; our identity as spiritual beings created for a divine purpose; the importance of stable communities to sustain humane values; our accountability to an authority higher than ourselves, higher even than the empire.

How will this worldview be sustained and passed along?  The answer makes up most of The Benedict Option.  Reviewer Collin Hansen summarizes the principle content of the book:

“(It’s) how to get started with the anti-political politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department.”

Reviewer Karen Swallow Prior adds these practices to the how-to list, all taken from the ancient Rule of St. Benedict and discussed in Dreher’s book:  order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, balance.

But here’s the thing:  for this flame to remain lit, the underlying worldview—rooted in orthodox Christianity—must remain intelligible.  For minds shaped by public schools, popular culture, corporate marketing, partisan politics and expressive individualism, an orthodox worldview increasingly is viewed as ridiculous, a very stupid career move, and an occasional public threat.  Only a community dedicated to faith in YHWH will be up to the task of communicating the faith of Jesus as a coherent, defensible and attractive alternative to the way of the empire.  This is why Dreher calls groups of Christians to bind themselves to one another, take a step back from full engagement in public life, and get serious about strengthening their faith.

In “Christians in the Hands of Donald Trump,” New York Times columnist Russ Douthat offers this assessment of why this matters:

“Dreher’s deeper, ‘how to build a counterculture’ argument matters regardless of whether his prophecies are accurate, because it matters in the polarized, fragmenting America that exists right now. Whatever comes in 2030 or 2040, whether or not a once-dominant Christianity is doomed to marginalization or merely in decline, we have a severe problem of rootlessness, hyper-individualism and anomie already—how do you think we got Trumpism? There is blame enough to go around, but the weakness of religious community is an important part of the story; strong religious bonds were often an antidote to rootlessness and dissolution in America’s more Tocquevillian, communitarian past, and they remain so in certain present-day case studies (Mormon Utah, most notably).” *

Sure, I wish Dreher wrote more about imperialism and less about sex.  But whether the subject is sex, imperialism or something else, a counter-culture perspective will wither unless rooted in a worldview strong enough to withstand the empire’s relentless shaping of “reality.”  Just look at the pitiful state of the American peace movement!

For this reason and more, we ought to be reading and discussing Dreher’s book.**
*  For more discussion of Douthat’s point—that the decline of religious practice is causing  increased polarization and greater social hostility—see here.

** Stanley Hauerwas responds briefly to Dreher’s Ben Op while discussing similar themes in an interview with Plough Quarterly.   Here is a quote from Hauerwas:  “My hunch is that you don’t just make a community up. You discover that you need one another because you’re in danger. We need to figure out how to reclaim the disciplines that are necessary for building a communal life in a manner that indicates we are a people who need help."