Even those critics friendly to Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option have failed to take its implications seriously, likely because they are afraid to take the concrete steps he suggests to preserve their Christian way of life in this country…

the benedict optionDoes the United States need Christianity or at least the conventional morality based on Christianity? Until the last fifty years—that is, since the sexual revolution—Christian morality was still mainly both the personal and the social norm. Even the American Enlightenment and deist tradition did not think anything else was possible.

Deist Thomas Jefferson, America’s pre-eminent son of the Enlightenment, called himself “a real Christian” (despite denying the divinity of Christ) and called Jesus’ moral teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”[1] Fellow Enlightenment deist Benjamin Franklin called Jesus’ “system of Morals and Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw.”[2] In Federalist 2, John Jay speaks of the religious and cultural unity of the new states, saying that they “[profess] the same religion.” And in his Farewell Address, George Washington said that “virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government” and that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” of “political prosperity.” Variations of these statements have occurred throughout American history.

Rod Dreher, in his much-discussed The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), asserts that we are living in “post-Christian America.” It seems that no one, whether on the left or right,  disagrees with this assessment, from liberal critic Emma Green (“Christianity is no longer the cultural default”), to conservative writers Fr. Dwight Longenecker (“the tsunami of anti-Christian culture”) and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (“traditional religion in all its forms has become a counterculture in the West”), to Patrick Gilger (“Christian America is already a contradiction in terms”) and Damon Linker (“a minority in a majority secular nation”) also agree.[3]

So, how should Christians react to the widely acknowledged reality that Christendom—that is, civilization and culture based on Christian principles and morality—is dead? Mr. Dreher says that “Christians are now in a time of decision,” and he calls on them to take concrete steps to preserve their Christian way of life in this country. Almost all the reviews of Mr. Dreher’s book concentrate on and criticize his supposedly monastic and society-denying “option” and downplay his very uncomfortable assessment of the need for that option. This review does the opposite.

Why It Is Needed

In an opening chapter that almost every reviewer ignores, Mr. Dreher traces the almost five-hundred-year decline of Christianity in the West. He is not original, of course, in pointing out that Christianity has never recovered from the destruction of its unity in the Reformation and from its replacement by science and empirical and historical thinking in the Enlightenment.

The truly transitional Francis Bacon, one of the inventors of the modern world, made it the purpose of his philosophy to use the new scientific method to harness nature for the practical material benefits of mankind—“for the relief of man’s estate,” as he famously put it. Mechanization and industrialization made the Bacon dream a reality. The consequence of this modern revolution, Mr. Dreher says, is that man began to see science as a means to overcome nature. In an elaboration on this historic development—an elaboration that might not be appreciated by conservatives and libertarians—Mr. Dreher points out the effects not only of industrialization but also of capitalism on the rise of the bedrock pillar of the modern world: individualism.

Mr. Dreher next brings out what arguably turns out to be the primary theme of the book: the continuing sexual revolution that began in the early 1960s. How’s that, Mr. Dreher, for annoying almost everybody? He quotes several authors and sources who have pegged the sexual revolution to contemporary radical individualism and refers to what has become the anthem of contemporary America: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s much-quoted statement in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, or the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Though Mr. Dreher says that Christian politics has failed, he does not argue—contrary to what several of his critics claim—that Christians should completely withdraw from politics. Instead, he proposes “anti-political politics.” By this, he means, first, that because society is post-Christian, political and social opportunities are somewhat limited. Second, since culture is part of politics, the concentration by Christians should be on opportunities to affect local culture first. Following the example and testimony of the Czech dissidents under communism, whom Mr. Dreher cites repeatedly in the book, a “parallel polis” at the local level should be erected, a small counter-cultural community (with Tocqueville as additional inspiration, of course) where social bonds and solidarity can be created, fostered, and maintained—a decisive turning away from the centralized forces of media, government, and corporations.

Revival of Christian Knowledge and Practice

Mr. Dreher, a member of the Orthodox Church, with its heavily traditional form of liturgy and prayer, holds that Christian traditions need to be re-discovered. Evangelicals generally do not know that tradition, but Mr. Dreher points to a growing interest among them. But other Christians have forgotten their traditions. Liturgy involves the body in worship, and, citing Marshal McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message,” Mr. Dreher maintains that liturgy is the ancient medium to reach God and part of the message. We engage in secular liturgies all the time. The liturgy of the shopping mall leads us to desire more opportunities to shop and more goods to consume. Sacred liturgy leads us to desire communion with God. The issue is which liturgies will form us.

Some form of regular ascetic discipline to counter comfort and self-indulgence is necessary today, Mr. Dreher contends. The habit of prayer and a spiritual outlook are, like athletics, gained only by regular training and practice. And church discipline needs to be tightened, even to the point of expelling unrepentant and unreformed sinners. When an individual is adamantly recalcitrant, he can undermine the entire community. Mr. Dreher gives the example of the excommunication from a Baptist church of a couple married for forty years who rebuffed numerous interventions and attempts by their pastor and church members and friends to help them turn away from divorce. After so many attempts, the congregation met and voted to expel the couple. This point of Mr. Dreher goes against the accommodating attitude that is so prevalent in churches these days and is conspicuously counter to Pope Francis’ “everyone is a member of the Church” attitude.

The best evangelizing is done by examples of saintliness and by beauty, and Mr. Dreher quotes Pope Benedict XVI to this effect: “Art and the saints are the greatest apologetics for our faith,” with the obvious corollary that apologetics and rational argumentation are secondary. Mr. Dreher thinks that we Americans should learn to regard the legacy of the Christian martyrs, and especially of the ancient Christian martyrs, as more pertinent to our daily lives. We should perhaps embrace martyrdom as a spiritual treasure that could apply to us. We are no better than our martyred ancestors, and maybe no safer.

Education

Mr. Dreher’s social criticism is based on three specific criticisms: of education, of the sexual revolution, and of the media.

He cites Czech dissidents who regret their failure to establish an educational underground in opposition to the communist state’s tight control of education. Orthodox Jews, who are experienced communitarians, say that education is the most important aspect of their communities. On this point, Mr. Dreher could also have cited the example of the Amish who regard the educational aspect of their communities as so fundamental that they fought compulsory school attendance all the way to the Supreme Court, a fight they won in Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972).

“Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is,” says Mr. Dreher. For Christians, that can only be the Scriptures and Christian tradition. It sounds obvious, yes, but he cites the widespread ignorance of Christian “basics,” including the Scriptures, even in very Bible-oriented churches, and the theological illiteracy among Christians, per the testimony of professors at both Catholic and Christian colleges. As for Western history and Western civilization, Mr. Dreher likewise cites professors who state that their students know nothing about it. He also includes references to observers back to the 1940s who lament students’ ignorance of history.

But it is most interesting that Mr. Dreher barely talks about the curriculum of public elementary and secondary schools. He emphasizes, instead, the peer culture of the school environment. Christian parents may try very hard, but everything can be undone by “the toxic peer culture” of public schools. In addition, the parents themselves may neither understand nor be capable of resisting. The effects are pervasive. Mr. Dreher quotes communications to him from parents of children in public schools who describe the startling number of public-school students who have come to believe that that they are transgender or bisexual. In the bluntest statement of his whole book, and one aimed directly at Christian parents, Mr. Dreher asserts that “two or three hours of religious education weekly is unlikely to counteract the forty or more hours spent in school or school-related programming.” The conclusion: Christian parents should remove their children from public schools.

A senior in a large public high school located in a major western city recently told this reviewer that he did not know any Christians at his school. Now, since there are obviously students there who are Christians, that means that the Christian students never identify themselves as Christians nor say or do anything identifiably Christian. Plainly, those students think that a public school is not an environment where it is appropriate or even permissible to be an open Christian. So, we may ask, if you never express who you really are, aren’t you inevitably changing who you really are?

Mr. Dreher likewise criticizes Christian schools that despite themselves are too oriented to having their students achieve worldly success. He also chastises parents of those students who do not supplement school religious instruction with their own additional instruction outside of those schools. In order to combine Christian education with an education in the liberal learning of Western civilization, Mr. Dreher endorses the classical Christian school movement and gives both Catholic and Evangelical examples. If such schools are too expensive or not available, the alternative is to homeschool.

As for universities, Mr. Dreher points to the success of some Christian “houses” at public universities—collegial Benedict Options, so to speak—whereby Christian students have associated closely together. But he notes that professors in the humanities usually have to hide their Christian beliefs, and that academia has achieved the “the total left-wing ideologization of literary scholarship”— leaving Mr. Dreher to wonder whether colleges are going to be viable places at all for Christian living.

Sexuality

In perhaps his most challenging chapter and the chapter that almost all reviewers have avoided talking about, Mr. Dreher points out that since Christianity is incarnational—that is, embodied—it has everything to do with the body, which means it has everything to do with sex. The Christian faith is lived every day by men and women—“male and female He created them”—in complementarity. Jesus took on a human body and came to redeem our bodies as well as our souls. The way we treat our bodies is our response to Jesus’ embodiment. Sexual practices are “central,” to Christian life and “the linchpin” of Christian culture, Mr. Dreher contends. The predominant reason people abandon Christianity has to do with Christian sexual morality rather than theology.

The “body,” both for individuals and for the social body, is now in advanced crisis in this country. Homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism are fundamental aspects of the body and what it means—if anything—to say that we are bodily creatures. Although he asserts at one point that “future historians” may find it hard to understand “how the sexual desires of only three to four percent of the population became the fulcrum on which an entire worldview was dislodged and overturned,” at another point he answers the question on his own. Americans accepted gay marriage so quickly based on “what they had already come to believe about the meaning of heterosexual sex and marriage.”

Mr. Dreher is hard on pastors. He says that “far too many pastors are afraid to talk about sex” with the consequence that “the church has allowed the culture to catechize its youth.” He cites a Southern Baptist who remembers that he never heard a sermon while growing up about sexual complementarity or “why my body is a good thing.” Mr. Dreher cites his own twenty-year experience as a Catholic and Orthodox that he has “yet to hear a sermon explaining in any depth what Christianity teaches about the human person and about the rightly ordered use of sex.” The experience of this reviewer in the Catholic Church is the same, and this reviewer wagers that it is the same for almost every reader of this essay. Without the positive evangelizing of the theological meaning and destiny of the human body, the challenging and elevated purpose of chastity, and the noble unifying of male and female in marriage, the Christian churches are left with a bunch of off-putting sexual “thou-shalt-not’s” (when they even say that).

The Internet and Social Media

True to the practices of his Eastern Orthodoxy, one of Mr. Dreher’s first recommendations about social media is to implement “digital fasting,” purposeful periods of abstention from technology in order to turn the mind to God. A Jewish organization called Reboot practices “digital Sabbaths.” In what is probably his most controversial position, Mr. Dreher says that smartphones should be taken away from kids. There are two reasons. The overwhelming majority of adolescents – more than 90 percent of boys – have seen pornography online. The second is the effects on the brain of life online and the transformation of attitudes and perspectives of daily living. Research on the ill effects of living online is accumulating.[4] Mr. Dreher might also have mentioned that the official motto of Facebook is “express yourself,” that is, it is not “communication.”[5]

It would be daring indeed for a Catholic bishop or a pastor of a large Evangelical church to attempt to get parents to agree to restrict the use of smartphones by their children before, say, the age of sixteen. First, of course, he would have to get the parents themselves to agree to restrict cellphone use within their own families.[6]

Mr. Dreher goes on to say that social media should not be allowed in church and that Christians need to take on the fundamental strategy of questioning rather than blindly following “progress.” Technology is making the human person not only too intellectualized but also incorporeal. He quotes one of the Benedictine monks who confided to him that doing physical work at the monastery “helps me remember that the human person is body and spirit, not just spirit.”

The Law

Besides emphasizing the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decisions, Mr. Dreher does not talk much about the legal threat to religious liberty and to Christianity. It is appropriate here to mention the apparent constitutional improvement brought about by the election of Donald Trump. As this reviewer has recently written elsewhere on The Imaginative Conservative, in President Obama’s second term, the Supreme Court turned back three major attempts by his administration to restrict religious liberty. In the most important of those case, Hosanna Tabor (2012), the Court unanimously held that the federal government could not have its say about employment of a minister by a Lutheran church and its school. And in the Hobby Lobby (2014) decision and the remand of the Little Sisters of the Poor case (2016), the Court effectively ruled that the federal government must allow Christian people to live their faith all the time, not just on Sunday morning.

Corporations

The current cultural insistence on secular conformity now prevails in the workplace of many professions, Mr. Dreher points out. There are so many ethical issues in the medical field that some young Christians are avoiding that profession altogether. And a truly colossal development has been the aggressive entry into progressive politics by corporations. One need think only of the recent ganging up on the state of North Carolina by corporations, including the glamour tech giants Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard, over North Carolina’s attempt to continue the natural segregation of the sexes in bathrooms.

In response, and as another example of his tough-love approach, Mr. Dreher thinks that Christians might have to accept less worldly and professional success. All Americans, including Christians, already labor too much. The proper balance among family, community, and work needs to be reassessed. In the Benedictine spirit, a revival of the trades—working with the hands—is needed. In forming small Christians communities, Christians should also start up small, local businesses. They should as much as possible make their purchases from identifiably Christian stores. “Buy Christian, even if it costs more,” says Mr. Dreher.

Rod Dreher’s Solution: The Benedict Option

St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 547) established about a dozen monasteries during his life, but his Rule of St. Benedict was and continues to be the foundation document not only for the Benedictine Order but for all Western monasticism. In seventy-three chapters, the Rule of St. Benedict sets out the standards for almost everything having to do with the communal life of the monks: from liturgy to silence, from kitchen duties to farm duties, from virtue to sin, and concerning the reception of guests.

Mr. Dreher, who visited the Benedictine monastery at Nursia, Italy, in preparing his book, holds that the Rule is a “manual of practices, and its precepts simple and “plain enough to be adapted by lay Christians for their own use.” He derives eight main principles from the Rule and states why each would literally be a godsend for Christians in the modern, secular world. Against the disorder and loss of tradition of the modern world, the first principle is that it is order—ordered daily life, rather than today’s randomness—that sets the stage for “internal order.”

The second is prayer. “Prayer is the life of the soul,” Mr. Dreher quotes a Benedictine monk, and time must be set aside for it. The monastic emphasis on regular, daily prayer is the precisely needed antidote to the maniacal busyness of the contemporary world. Echoing the standard understanding of the role of prayer in Christian life, Mr. Dreher suggests that “if we spend all our time in activity, even when that activity serves Christ, and neglect prayer and contemplation, we put our faith in danger.”

Third, against the intellectualizing of everything today, Benedict’s Rule understands that the involvement of the body in manual labor is an essential part of human work. Again, Christians today, having been forced out of some of the professions, may have to resort to more labor by hand, Mr. Dreher concludes.

Fourth, contrary to the supreme modern principle of satisfying one’s own desires, “relearning asceticism—that is, how to suffer for the faith—is critical training for Christians living in the world today and the world of the near future.”

Fifth, even that most monastic principle of stability—that is, staying in one place—has some relevance to lay Christians, for what is the overall benefit of our constant mobility?

Sixth is community, the human architecture of a monastery, but also of a family, a neighborhood, a city, a society, and a polity. We readers might add to Mr. Dreher’s analysis the observation that we now increasingly live without a sense of shared life, without a “collective consciousness,” as Emile Durkheim put it. We are “free, equal, and independent,” but, pace John Locke, we are alone.

Seventh, contrary to Mr. Dreher’s critics and to a true understanding of the Rule, hospitality is a daily duty not only of monastic life but also of lay Christian life. Pilgrims and visitors are to “be received like Christ.” But hospitality, like all the virtues, must be practiced with prudence and according to the other principles of the Rule. A visitor cannot disturb or disrupt the community.

Mr. Dreher adds an eighth principle—balance, partly derived from the Benedictines but also from his own reflection and observation. By being too strict, some Christian communities have fallen apart or become “cultlike.” On the other hand, since abandonment to the will of God is the goal, Christian communities cannot be based on “spiritual mediocrity.”

Conclusion

This review has referred to several examples and anecdotes that Mr. Dreher uses to illustrate his points. The book contains many more. In closing, let us refer to four events in order to see if they might prompt Christians to think with Mr. Dreher about whether they need to take action.

First, the running out of the town of Silicon Valley on a rail of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich by the gay lobby and the media-academic complex for his support of natural marriage is an event that happened three years ago. That is, even the rich and powerful—the One Percent—are not immune from the enforced diktats of the new social order. We can be certain today that no mere employee of a corporation or even a business of any size may ever say in the workplace that marriage is between a man and a woman. This is now both a cultural and a corporate rule.

Second, an interview on National Public Radio on December 8, 2016, serves as a reflection for Christians on the institutions that control public discussion, on “fake news,” and on not only media “bias” but also media ignorance.[11] In that interview, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, America’s so-called “newspaper of record,” said, “I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.”

Third, the public school system of the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, recently decided to include the book, Jacob’s New Dress, in the first-grade curriculum. The book, written by wife-and-husband team Sarah and Ian Hoffman, was selected, the school system said, for its anti-bullying theme. Parents were not informed beforehand—of course—but when word did get out to them, parents forced the school system to back down. The authors responded to the situation by stating that “the idea that a book can turn someone gay or transgender is bizarre to us. Reading a book can’t turn you gay.”[8] Now, let’s leave aside for the moment the obvious self-interest the authors might have in protecting their income from the book. If we focus instead on the authors’ words, only two possible conclusions are available to us: Either they simply are speaking in Orwellian terms, or they have not met many children. School books are not educational, say authors of school books!

Fourth, let us not forget that last year this country lived through the experience of the mighty federal government, backed by the assembled forces of the national media, not shrinking from or expressing any embarrassment at using the law and the Constitution to persecute an organization that calls itself “The Little Sisters of the Poor.” There is no better summary of contemporary American Secular Progressivism: Living according to your conscience and being poor is no excuse.

Finally, Christian readers, are any of Mr. Dreher’s eight principles of his Benedict Option wrong? If so, which ones? The book is fundamentally addressed to Christians as Christians—not to political or Christian conservatives and not to the general populace. Mr. Dreher challenges us Christians to make a decision about society and about our own communities… before it is too late.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] John Fea, “Religion And Early Politics: Benjamin Franklin and His Religious Beliefs” (Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXVII, Number 4 – Fall 2011).

[2] Peter Carlson, “The Bible According to Thomas Jefferson” (The Humanist.com February 2012).

[3] Emma Green, “The Christian Retreat from Public Life” (The Atlantic, February 2017);Dwight Longenecker, “Rod Dreher & Anthony Esolen: Two Noahs Facing the Flood” (The Imaginative Conservative, March 2017); Ross Douthat, “Christians in the Hands of Donald Trump” (The New York Times, March 2017);Patrick Gilger, “What Rod Dreher Gets Right in ‘The Benedict Option’ Is Just as Important as What He Gets Wrong” (America: The Jesuit Review, March 2017).Damon Linker, “The Benedict Option: Why the Religious Right Is Considering an All-Out Withdrawal from Politics” (The Week, May 2015).

[4] Bernard Luskin, “Brain, Behavior, and Media” (Psychology Today, March 2012).

[5] “Express Yourself” (Facebook Campaign).

[6] Jonathan Vankin, “The Effect of Cell Phones on American Families” (It Still Works, 2017).

[7] “New York Times Executive Editor on the New Terrain of Covering Trump” (National Public Radio, Fresh Air, December 8, 2016).

[8] Mark Price, “‘Reading a Book Can’t Turn You Gay,’ Says Authors of Children’s Book Yanked by CMS” (The Charlotte Observer, March 2017).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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