Rod Dreher’s book, “The Benedict Option,” has gone on to become an international cultural event. Yet, today, it is not clear whether the book has had any influence on Church institutions and leadership. Has the Benedict Option then been a failure? Should other “options” be considered?
Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option, a New York Times bestseller in 2017, in which he said that “Christians have lost the culture wars” in what is now a “post-Christian nation,” has become a major cultural event. And, although it has been ignored by our country’s elite media and institutions including almost all of the leadership of the Christian churches, the book has gone on to become an international cultural event. It has now been translated into eleven languages, a remarkable accomplishment since both its setting and analysis concern the United States. Touchstone magazine recently sponsored a three-day conference to examine the options under the Benedict Option.
The book is mainly known for Mr. Dreher’s conclusion that because Christian politics has been tried and failed: “Christians are now in a time of decision.” Yet, contrary to what has been regularly claimed—read or unread—about the book, Mr. Dreher does not conclude that Christians should completely withdraw from politics. Instead, he argues that a Christianity-based “parallel polis” at the local level should be erected, a small counter-cultural community where social bonds and solidarity can be created, fostered, and maintained—a decisive turning away from the centralized forces of media, government, and corporations. His model is St. Benedict of Nursia and his Rule of St. Benedict, which Mr. Dreher calls “a manual of practices” available to all Christians. Benedict’s Rule led to the widespread erection of monasteries in the decisive 6th Century era after the fall of the Roman Empire. Mr. Dreher includes many direct criticisms of Christian churches themselves and calls much of church life today “enfeebled Christianity.” Against the triumph of Eros, Mr. Dreher argues that Christianity is incarnational, that is, embodied, and therefore, has everything to do with the body and therefore everything to do with sex. But pastors of all Christian churches have given up that subject, with the result that “the church has allowed the culture to catechize its youth” about sex. He concludes that Christian parents should remove their children from “the toxic peer culture” of public schools.
Criticism of the book has ranged from “Christians should not withdraw from society” to “most of this is what Christians should be doing anyway.” It was widely discussed in Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical publications and websites. Christianity Today, the main Evangelical magazine, devoted a cover story to the book with the general conclusion that is was not for Evangelicals.
Besides the criticisms about withdrawing from society and politics, there have been other criticisms. An essay in Atlantic magazine expressed appreciation for the benefits of communal religious life, but questioned Mr. Dreher about “how to live side by side with people unlike him.” A 2018 New Republic article argued that Mr. Dreher’s promotion of the old ways and Western Civilization was exclusive and therefore racist. In an October 2017 speech at Notre Dame, Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro, a personal advisor to Pope Francis, specifically brought up the Benedict Option and said that it did not align with the views of Pope Francis.
Yet, today, it is not clear whether the book has had any influence on Church institutions and leadership. Seeking an evaluation of the book and its concepts after two-and-a-half years, Touchstone magazine held a three-day conference—“Fight or Flight? The Benedict and Other Options”—at Trinity International University just outside of Chicago on October 10-12. Touchstone describes itself as a Journal of Mere Christianity “with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.” Mr. Dreher himself was present and spoke at the conference. (Not every conference speaker will be considered herein.)
Options for Christians
One of the first speakers, Anthony Esolen, Catholic essayist and professor of English at Magdalen College in New Hampshire, added his own bill of particulars to those of Mr. Dreher in the Benedict Option. Modern man, he said, is alienated but does not know that what he is alienated from is his past. We work in cubicles, both literal and metaphorical, because we are worthless. Contemporary man is, as Walker Percy claimed, “lost in the cosmos,” and from Genesis, we know that “it is not good for man to be alone.” And this new loneliness is widely recognized and discussed in both secular and religious writing. No one is home today; there are more cars on the streets than kids. And the central ritual, the family meal, of the central institution of the family is gone and with it God. For, as the Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper laid out, feasting has always had a divine invitation and element.
John Stonestreet, the President of the Colson Center for a Christian Worldview, argued that our moment in history must be distinguished from the real “story” and “fact” that Christ is risen (1 Pet. 1:3). Christ, not the world and its circumstances, chooses our cultural moment, he continued, going on to cite Paul’s sermon on the Aeropagus (Acts 17), and will make all things new. Mr. Stonestreet proposed a Benedict-Kyper Option. Abraham Kyper was first a Calvinist theologian and then journalist who, in addition, had a long public career, including a term as prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905. In his several careers, Kyper, Mr. Stonestreet asserted, evaluated each moment in terms of the “story.”
Joining the essential consensus of all the speakers at the conference, Mr. Stonestreet said that public and social involvement, should be de-centralized and de-professionalized. It has three elements. First, it is the job of ordinary Christians, not the clergy. Second, there should be a discernment between what is good “to celebrate” and what is “missing.” And Christians should look to what they can contribute to the missing. Third, what evil should Christians resist? And what can Christians restore? For the Christian, the restoring will always be the restoration of the Word.
“We have home-field advantage,” Mr. Stonestreet stated, the world is created good. Everyone is made in the image of God, and morality is universal. The higher order of love must be restored as an antidote to our culture’s regarding of love as either just bodily sex or mere sentiment. Christians have wrongly “outsourced” their job to the culture. And this “anthropological shift” and cultural identity crisis is within the Church as well.
A Culture for Christians
Erin Doom of the Eighth Day Institute, which sponsors an annual Inklings Festival, declared that we need a theology of culture. Basing a substantial part of his talk on an essay, “Faith and Culture,” by Orthodox priest Fr. George Florovsky, Mr. Doom distinguished four kinds of Christian cultural and historical “pessimism.” First, are pietists, private Christians, for whom culture is incidental and who seek release from the world. Second, Puritans focus on man as miserable sinner. For them, culture must be endured and no creative energies are directed to it. The third group may be called Christian existentialists who think that the world is meaningless, man is nothing, and God is all. Last is the “quiet man” for whom culture is useful but not connected to religion.
As his major point, Mr. Doom argued that the destiny of human culture is not irrelevant to man’s final destiny. But true culture is essentially internal to the Church. Mr. Doom made the dramatic statement that the Age of the Apostles and with it the “missionary” teaching purpose of the Church ended in the second century. Since then and right up to the present, the mission of the church has been and continues to be “pastoral,” that is, preservative of Christianity rather than evangelizing the world. Christian “culture” is accomplished by miracles which show God’s power, martyrs who are witnesses, and virginity as the sign of the kingdom. The models and archetypes are the Church Fathers and monks—of whom Benedict is one.
Russell Moore, president of the Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, delivered what was in every respect a sermon and an enigmatic one at that. With the work of the Commission that he heads being concerned with morality and public policy, Dr. Moore is and has been a highly visible public figure. He has been a vocal critic of President Trump and refused to support him in the 2016 elections.
The spotlight of Dr. Moore’s talk was Hezekiah, one of the good kings of ancient Israel, who purified the temple and rid the kingdom of idolatry. But Isaiah warned him that his alliance with the Babylonian king would lead to the destruction of his house in the future, Hezekiah replied that he accepted that fate in exchange for “peace and security” in his day (2 Kings 20, 12-19). Without using the word, Dr. Moore essentially said that it was a devil’s bargain: Hezekiah’s accommodation and peace with the pagan Babylon later became a “critical fracture in the integrity of the Jewish kingdom.” Thus should Christians today be wary of worldly success. In our country, according to Dr. Moore, there is “a simmering rage” against people of faith, but what about the Church’s own integrity? Do secularists think that Christians truly believe in what their faith teaches? Even good Hezekiah accepted things like “peace and security” can undermine the truth of the suffering and resurrected Christ.
Dr. Moore made no direct references to the Benedict Option and its fundamental question of how Christians should specifically respond to and live in contemporary culture. Obviously, he meant that they should not accept the peace and security offerings of the world, but any such offerings seem far from the present cultural and political reality on the ground. His talk puzzled many of the attendees, and that puzzlement was not reduced in any way since Dr. Moore immediately left without taking questions.
What Is To Be Done
As for what is to be done, Anthony Esolen pointed out that you can’t give what you don’t have. Today, what we need is literature instead of more calculators. Build the imagination, he said. Read real books. Culture must be reconstructed at the local level. Build families; unmarriage is worse than divorce; raise kids specifically to be married. Have socials; have dances every week. Most college students have never read a real book or watched a good movie. Those students don’t know what they don’t know. Dr. Esolen said that some males have never had a male friend. Work in politics because we love our country. Worship should be public whenever possible.
John Yocum, theology professor at Sacred Heart Seminary of Detroit, spoke as a leader of the Servants of the Word and Sword of the Spirit, an ecumenical brotherhood of Christian celibate men who live in over 100 communities in 30 countries. Dr. Yocum gave a report of the experience of his and other Christian “intentional communities” in the world today. First, he stated that such communities are based on a common course of teaching and personal formation. The premise and basis of the Servants of the Word is that we are rational beings and that reason must rule over the passions. Second, he maintained that intentional communities must be intergenerational, that is, enroll members of the next generation and have the distinct purpose of passing on the community to the next generation.
Third, Dr. Yocum said that the key to a Benedict Option outlook and purpose is for Christians and Christian families to deliberately and specifically schedule and “choose religious events over other events” in their daily lives. This means daily and weekly events and occasions—fraternal gatherings, group prayer, feasts, scripture reading, and study—well beyond going to church on Sunday. Such communal life is the heart of intentional communities, and Dr. Yocum was recommending it for all Christian families and friends as well.
After observing that none of the speakers at the conference had counseled “flight,” Leah Lebresco Sargent, author of Building the Benedict Option and a former atheist, proposed herself as “the foot” to the other speakers’ thoughts. Begin building the Benedict Option immediately, she insisted; don’t wait. What social goods do people really want? The answer, according to Mrs. Sargent, is the small things, not the larger social or political culture. She has given her book the subtitle of A Guide to Gathering Two or Three in His Name. Invite people over! The regular gatherings of friends is essential. Mrs. Sargent pointed out that friendship itself has declined and is considered a lesser order than the particular friendship of marriage. And when marriage happens, other friendships tend to wither. Christians should invite people both to the good part and the bad part of their lives. Everyone has something to give. We can even offer our suffering as a gift to friends. Her instinct for the gathering of friends has led her to invite individuals into her group to share weighty and very personal matters, which has included alcoholism, anorexia, and depression. “When I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10). Friendship is direct, not mediated.
In the Q-and-A session in which Mrs. Sargent participated, it was pointed out that priests and ministers are always busy and don’t have much extra time. Thus, it is friends who must be available to hold each other accountable.
Allan Carlson, senior fellow at the International Organization of the Family and founder of the World Congress of Families, spoke of the efforts in some Eastern European countries today to have public policies preservative of Christian tradition and of the family. He related the substantial attempts in several Western European countries after World War II to effect a moral and religious revival. Proposing affirmative public polices to support work and the family, Christian parties came to power in an attempt to form Christian democracies. But that those initiatives fell apart in the 1960’s. As for Eastern Europe, when communism collapsed in 1989-91, hedonism set in with resulting low marriage and birth rates. Today, there are efforts in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Serbia to revive Christian society. Those countries assert that they have not lost the culture wars. In Poland and Hungary, marriage and fertility rates have increased.
Remarks of Rod Dreher
In his own talk and additional comments, Rod Dreher said that the world is run by corporations and money. And the challenges of the world cannot be solved by politics, for politics gives no meaning. People desire meaning, he said. His position is that politics should not be given too much or too little importance. A spirit of permanence which is an organizing principle of monasticism should be primary in every Christian’s life. He counseled a “strategic retreat” because the resources of Christians have been widely scattered. Church leadership, even at the parish level, cannot be counted on. St. Benedict of Nursia should be every Christian’s common father.
Concerning his current project visiting Eastern European countries and preparing a book about their experience before and after communism, Mr. Dreher related several meetings and conversations with people in his visits to those countries comparing the totalitarianism of communism with imported, Western, secular, materialist, individualist democracy. Some aver that social life is worse today. Among other anecdotes from his Benedict Option travels: A Nigerian Anglican bishop told him that the Benedict Option is needed in Nigeria because the young now have cellphones. His recent talk on the Benedict Option in Rome was attended by former Pope Benedict XVI’s personal secretary who made a point of praising the Benedict Option. Mr. Dreher had been informed that certain people in the Vatican had discouraged others from attending his talk.
As for what the attitude of Christians should be towards politics, Mr. Dreher offered the familiar story of the martyrdom of Shadrack, Meshach, and Abenego in the book of Daniel (3). Those three Jewish youths were public officials commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. They were part of that segment of the Jews that Nebuchadnezzar had captured—the Babylonian captivity—with the purpose of assimilating them into his kingdom. The king had an image of gold fashioned and commanded all to worship it. When the three refused that idolatry, he had them thrown into a fiery furnace. Instead of the usual emphasis on the youths’ trial by fire, Mr. Dreher used the story to point out that for Christians there are inevitable limitations on allegiance to the state. To that point, he seemed to echo Russell Moore about king Hezekiah.
A constant theme, explicit and implicit, of not only the speakers but also the audience was the lack of references to the institutional structures of American Christian churches. No one expressed any praise for the leaders of any of their respective Christian churches concerning the adequacy of their job performances addressing contemporary American culture or, as needed, fighting it.
Asheville, NC. The day after the Touchstone conference, Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, and head of Samaritan’s Purse, a national and international relief agency that received $668 million in voluntary contributions (its IRS form 990 is on its website) and contributed 525,000 man-hours (252 years) of voluntary work in 2018, brought his Decision America evangelizing tour to Asheville, North Carolina.
After the singing of God Bless America, Mr. Graham began his sermon by leading the 5,300 attendees in prayer for Donald Trump, Mike Pence—and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. During his talk, he called all sinners to repentance. In a passing reference to LGBT persons, he maintained his love for them. Outside, a group of about 20 self-identified LGBT people, almost all of them young and with venom on their faces and in their words, held up a large banner describing Graham as “a piece of ___” (not “cake”).
As attendees were leaving, workers handed out a pamphlet entitled “Your Duties as a Christian Citizen” which in addition to the duties of becoming informed and voting, included the duty to “keep going” in involvement in politics after election day. It is clear that Franklin Graham, among Christian leaders, is advocating “fight” rather than flight.
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The featured image is a portrait of St. Benedict by Pietro Perugino (1448-1523), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.