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Like a pair of Noahs, Rod Dreher and Anthony Esolen have produced two powerful books for Christians who, facing the flood of the breakdown of society, are considering the Benedict Option…

benedict optionWorried about the breakneck pace of change, overwhelming social upheaval, the breakdown of the family, the sexual revolution, the disintegration of Christianity, and the tsunami of technology?

Like a pair of Noahs, Rod Dreher and Anthony Esolen have produced two powerful books for Christians facing the flood.

Mr. Esolen’s Out of the Ashes is a deliciously nostalgic rant against the rising tide of secularism. Never one to tiptoe through the minefield, Mr. Esolen rages against the idiocy of political correctness, big bureaucracy and the stupidity of modern America. He laments the passing of a simpler, more dignified age—an age where the teaching of virtue was taken for granted, where large families lived and loved together, where learning was deep and wide, where men were fathers, women were mothers and religion was more than shallow entertainment.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dreher goes book length with his enthusiasm for The Benedict Option. For those who have missed out on Dreher’s campaign, the “Benedict Option” might also be called the “Benedict Opt Out.” As St. Benedict headed for the hills in the wake of societal collapse in the sixth century, so Mr. Dreher believes that Christians in America today should respond to the current social, moral and religious collapse by building strong, prayerful, studious and hard working alternative communities.

benedict optionTo be fair, Mr. Dreher is not recommending an ostrich-like head in the sand quietism. The Benedict Option is pro-active, not passive. He believes the attack on Christianity from the progressive left—especially the LGBT militants will continue. The response is not to fight, but to stand firm in the face of impending attack, and to do so from a position of strength within positive, faithful, consistent Christian communities. These communities might be groups of Christians living near one another and gathered around their church, or they might be new religious communities, new schools or groups of families supporting one another in prayer, work and study.

As a Benedictine oblate I was especially pleased to see how both Mr. Esolen and Mr. Dreher drew on the deep traditions of faith and scholarship to re-vivify the West. St. Benedict’s emphasis on prayer, work and study is explicit in Dreher’s ideas and deeply implicit in Esolen’s. Mr. Dreher’s tone is somewhat more alarmist while Mr. Esolen’s is nostalgically furious, but both rise above the  lament over what has been lost to offer solutions for what can be re-built.

Crucial to both men’s call for action is an understanding of just how terrible the tsunami of anti-Christian culture really is. Mr. Dreher diagnoses with great accuracy the dreaded disease of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that infects great swathes of American Christianity. Mr. Esolen sees how the decline of sacramentalism and the rise of social relevance has led to the irrelevance of religion. The sexual revolution with artificial contraception and artificial conception has demolished the code of sexual morality and Christians have been left reeling—with the majority of the young generation in favor of the progressive gender agenda. The new technology has not only pumped porn into the heads and hearts of teenaged boys, but it has altered our consciousness, leading to an inability and incapacity to concentrate, read and think.

What is the answer? If both men call first for an awareness of the problem, they also call for a conscious, intentional, and disciplined response. Mr. Esolen’s solutions are broader in their intent—with particular examples, whereas Mr. Dreher’s solutions are more specific. In The Benedict Option he lays out particular actions that individuals, families and communities can take. Both men acknowledge that the vocation to re-build a Christian culture will require hard work, sacrifice and serious commitment.

Mr. Dreher is to be commended too, for acknowledging the shared worldview of all Christians who are committed to historic Christianity. Increasingly the division in Christendom is not between Protestant, Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. The division is between those who believe Christianity is revealed by God and is eternally true, and those who believe the Christian religion is a human construct and a historical accident which not only can be adapted for every age, but must be.

When he emerged from his prison cell in communist Romania, Baptist pastor Richard Wurmbrand said in the torture chambers there were no Baptists, Catholics or Orthodox. There were only brothers in Christ. This is the ecumenism of our age: Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox who hold to the timeless truths of Scripture and the Christian tradition will know at heart that they are brothers and sisters. Together they will rediscover the foundations of the faith, and almost despite themselves, may lay the foundation for a new Christendom.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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6 replies to this post
  1. How do we do this and still maintain a positive relationship with our children and other family members who have been sucked in by the current state of affairs? Or is it possible?

  2. Historic Christianity is Catholic Christianity. One of the timeless Truths of Scripture is that Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church and that there is no salvation outside of Jesus’s Church.Any ecumenism that does not explicitly state that in a ‘we are all in this together’ mentality is a false ecumenism.

    • That is true. I suggest that we embrace our separated brethren as brothers in Christ, and trust to God’s timing to bring about the eventual unity. Protestant Christians who love Christ above all else tend to be much more sympathetic to Catholicism than they were fifty years ago, as the corrosive effects of secular progressivism have compelled them to see where their friends really are. We may have to content with committing ourselves to a program whose culmination we will not see while still on this earth.
      Come, Lord Jesus!

  3. To answer to Kay. In my experience it’s generally important to be extremely loving, patient and understanding with people in such situations. These difficult topics should only be addressed if the situation explicitly calls for it. Though it’s also important to be firm in your beliefs. If you’re a believer, praying for help about this (often!) is a good idea.

  4. Unfortunately – and especially pertinent in Mr. Dreher’s case – to willfully leave the Catholic Faith has only precipitated this collapse. Mr. Dreher can admit this on some pages, and yet, in regard to his late embrace of orthodoxy, it seems to ring hollow in both readers’ and writer’s ears.

    That gulags and other such suffering should occasion one sort of ecumenism is common-sense: to expect that a proposal for the building of *THE* Faith (which is, according to Scripture, both one and led by one shepherd – and his vicar) should follow the same or nearly same pattern is simply a slightly less bitter saccharine that will eventually poison the rat.

    We omit the elephant in the room and assume that the imposition of the most banal liturgy that the Latin Church could have thunk up has had little to do with all this. Dr. Esolen hints at it, but he’s too “nice”.

  5. I haven’t read either book, but I am familiar with Dreher’s Benedict option. You’re right, it doesn’t quite call for putting one’s head in the sand, but it is retreatist at best. In comments around articles where I’ve seen this come up, I’ve proposed a different option, the Dominican Option. The Dominican Order, or more precisely called the Order of Preachers, were founded by St. Dominic to combat the Albigensian heresy. They did this by study of scripture and teaching, prayer and preaching, contemplation and active engagement. The Dominicans were probably the most consequential of all the religious orders, if you ask me. Between St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert the Great they came to define the scholasticism of the high middle ages. So today, in order to combat the heresy of modernism, we need to emulate them. We need to study the roots of traditional based society and preach it to world. We need to engage the world with good scholarship.

    By the way, I’m serious contemplating being a lay Dominican.

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