What’s All the Fuss About “The Benedict Option”?

by Christa Hill with Matthew Steven Bracey

For several years now, Rod Dreher, prominent conservative thinker and journalist, has been talking about the Benedict Option. For nearly as long, several of Dreher’s critics and allies have not had a clear understanding of what exactly he is proposing. Finally, Dreher published The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation in 2017. In this 262-page volume, Dreher outlines what he believes to be the best way for Christians to preserve the faith in the midst of an increasingly aggressive secular culture.

Dreher’s earlier work Crunchy Cons greatly influenced my thinking: it outlined a conservatism that is more traditional and, I think, Biblical. Thus, I was particularly interested in discovering what Dreher means by “the Benedict Option.” Many people, it seems, have the misconception that Dreher is calling for a complete Christian withdrawal from secular society. Under such a model, Christians would live in Amish-like communities, focusing only on strengthening families and congregations while passively allowing the culture at large to continue its decline. Believers who recall Christ’s commands for us to be salt and light in the world, taking the gospel to all nations and making disciples have rightfully challenged this notion, even though it is not actually Dreher’s position.

Throughout the chapters, Dreher emphasizes that he is not championing a complete withdrawal from society. In fact, he thinks that believers who adopt the Benedict Option will best be able to reach our secular friends and neighbors showing them the joy and security found in traditional Christian faith and practice. Furthermore, argues Dreher, if Christians do not become more intentional in passing down the faith to our children and in building one another up, Christianity in the West will die.

A brief overview of the contents of the book as well as some reflections will further clarify Dreher’s true position.

Book Overview

Dreher is an excellent, clear writer who very winsomely presents his thesis and solutions. “The Benedict Option,” he writes, “[is] a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’ and form a vibrant counterculture.”[1] To explain how this can be accomplished, Dreher looks to the sixth-century monk Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order, who, despite his high status in Roman society, retreated from Roman culture when he saw its moral decay all around him.

Dreher asserts that we are living in very similar times, largely due to the triumph of the Sexual Revolution in the West. He strongly suggests that Christians adapt the Rule of St. Benedict, originally written to order life in Benedictine monasteries, to our own contexts.

Dreher begins by explaining how Western culture has become what it is by tracing its intellectual history. Though his thesis in this chapter is mostly correct, I think he errs when he states that the “Middle Ages consensus” was spiritually superior to later ages. Medieval people, he argues, were much more aware of the connection between the creation and the Creator, understanding that humans experience God through the gifts He has given us. Therefore, he, with his Catholic and Eastern Orthodox background, holds the Reformation as somewhat responsible for our current crisis. In his view, the Reformation removed a clearly visible religious authority. As a low church Protestant who sees what Francis Schaeffer calls “the Renaissance-Reformation consensus” as the high point of Western culture, I disagree with this particular aspect of Dreher’s view.

Having clearly outlined our moral devolution, Dreher then recounts his visit to the Benedictine monks at Norcia who have re-established Benedict’s original monastery. In this chapter, Dreher’s Catholic background and current Eastern Orthodox belief is quite pronounced, but that is certainly no cause for committed Protestants to disregard what Dreher has to say. Indeed, he inspirationally highlights the discipline and faithfulness the monks display as they live outside of secular society. These traits allow them to preserve the faith that has been handed down to them, to strengthen one another in their community, and to live according to their calling. Again, Dreher is not advocating a monastic retreat for Christians; rather, he believes that adopting the discipline and order of the Rule of Benedict will help all Christians form deep spiritual lives and strong Christian communities.

Throughout the next several chapters, Dreher outlines how the Benedict Option could best be worked out in our lives, in our politics, in our churches, in our education, in our work, and in our communities. He frequently introduces readers to people who are already living out the Benedict Option with success.

In politics, Dreher encourages Christians to become more involved in their local communities. In addition, he says that Christians can’t eschew involvement on the national level because we have to work to protect religious liberty, a necessary foundation for Benedict Option communities to arise. His reminder that politics can’t save us is especially timely, given the challenges of the last presidential election and that the Religious Right was unable to stem the rapid tide of secularism that led to the Obergefell decision.

Dreher admonishes churches to become places in which believers are strengthened. He calls on Christians to reject the secularization and shallowness that have characterized so many congregations for the last few years. Instead, the church ought to recover and teach about its past and to focus on having a strong liturgy that truly teaches people what we believe and how Christianity affects our lives.

Education is another key component to realizing the Benedict Option. Dreher pulls no punches in his description of the modern education system that merely (and, often, inadequately) trains students to be able to find good jobs but does little to prepare them to be critical thinkers. Furthermore, it does nothing to teach them of God’s truth and ultimate reality. Dreher proposes that Christians seek classical Christian education for their children through homeschooling or private institutions instead.

Dreher also writes passionately about Christians building strong communities. Doing so can help provide needed fellowship, neighborly support, and, ultimately, answers for those who will eventually become disenchanted with secularism.

As Christians are likely to face more difficult ethical circumstances in their careers in the years ahead, Dreher also suggests that Christians carefully consider the careers they or their children choose to enter. He also suggests that we begin to establish opportunities to employ one another now.

The final two chapters of the book are dedicated to discussing the two masters of the cultural zeitgeist: sex and technology. First, Dreher reminds Christians that they must reclaim the sanctity of God’s plan for sexuality and work in community to help one another resist sexual temptation. Technology, too, must not be allowed to order our lives because of its tendency to fragment them, impairing our ability to think deeply about important matters.

Reflections

Dreher is a timely and prophetic voice. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the book so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I agreed with what Dreher had to say, especially considering the ways in which his book has been intentionally or unintentionally misrepresented.

I worry, though, that, given our fallen tendency to choose what is comfortable, Benedict Option communities could become Christian “bubbles,” and the outreach that Dreher dreams of would never happen. Also, we have to be careful not to ignore Christ’s command to “go into all the world.” Sure, we need to strengthen ourselves and our children through praying more, learning more, and fellowshipping more, but we must not do so to the point that we ignore our lost neighbors. Again, I don’t think Dreher is in any way suggesting that we ignore anyone, but this tendency could be a real temptation for Benedict Option Christians.

Furthermore, as wonderful as the idea of Christian communities is, would creating actual physical communities make it harder for us to reach the lost? Again, I realize that Dreher is not saying that we need to live in communes, but would lost people move to our communities? Would the “bubbles” these enclaves created make us apathetic to the lost world? Maybe not. Maybe stable Christian communities would become shining cities on a hill that attracted disillusioned moderns. Again, however, our tendency to choose comfort might inhibit us from being true salt and light. On the other hand, if we are truly teaching our children what it means to be Christians and learning what that means for ourselves, then maybe we would have the passion required to be salt and light regardless of our circumstances.

Conclusion

The Benedict Option is an important book. Thoughtful Christians would do well to read it, consider what Dreher suggests, and discuss the possibilities for strengthened Christian community together. I found the book to be particularly convicting at times: I was forced to consider the state of my prayer life, the need for better discipline, and the easy way that technology can come to rule our lives and re-wire our brains.

Dreher is absolutely right to sound the alarm, as it were, for Christians. We can’t continue to do the same things we have been doing and expect our youth to return to the church or expect the culture wars to suddenly turn in our favor. That won’t happen. We must begin, as Dreher pleads, to live intentionally as Christians in our aggressively secular culture. Whether we choose the Benedict Option as Dreher envisions remains to be seen, but we ought to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider his ideas. Ultimately, though, we must seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we consider these matters.

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Another Two Cents from Forum Member Matthew Steven Bracey: I share many of Christa’s concerns about Dreher’s The Benedict Option. If readers interpret him to mean that we should withdraw from meaningful engagement with the world, whether functionally or literally, then Dreher’s book has had an unfortunate result. Christ does not want us to retreat; He wants us to “go ye therefore.” He’s not calling us out of the world; He’s sending us into it. Additionally, the practical suggestions of some of Dreher’s high church, Catholic-Orthodox sensibilities and spirituality are unequivocally problematic for low church Protestants, who believe in down-to-earth, ordinary means of grace.

These things said, Dreher’s critiques of popular, shallow American religion are great! Dreher helpfully urges Western Christians to take seriously the overwhelming problems of modern culture, which many Christians seem simply to assume as being okay. Instead, Dreher says that we need to strengthen our foundations to ensure that our house doesn’t blow down in the cultural storms. We do this by creating a Christian culture that is robustly informed by Biblical theology and integrated with Biblical spirituality. Dreher’s chapter on education, in which he recommends a Christian classical curriculum, is wonderful. In these ways, The Benedict Option is not all that different from Ken Myers’s All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, who he explicitly commends in the notes.

In strengthening the base, though, Dreher warns, “Communities that are wrapped too tight for fear of impurity will suffocate their members and strangle the joy out of life together. Ideology is the enemy of joyful community life, and the most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is possible.”[2] Instead, regardless of what people believe to be the extent of his advocacy for cultural withdrawal and regardless of his own rhetoric that can sound separationist at times, Dreher says that his thesis “is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is.” [3]

He explains that we need to “bear with the world in love and to transform it as the Holy Spirit transformed us” so that Christians can “approach politics, church, family, community, education, our jobs, sexuality, and technology” more meaningfully.[4] He cites with approval someone he interviewed for his book, who stated, “‘We’re not battening down the hatches, hunkering down, and keeping quiet about our faith.’”[5]

Whatever the challenges associated with The Benedict Option—and certainly there are some—we must toil day-in and day-out to form a distinctly Christian culture and guard its integrity while still engaging the world tranformationally. Just as God is transforming us from children of darkness to children of light, so He sends us into the world to continue the pattern He’s set for us. Undoubtedly, we’ll not realize God’s kingdom; only He can do that. However, our instruction is to go, come what may, rain or shine.

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[1] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 18.

[2] Ibid., 139.

[3] Ibid., 77.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 134.

Author: Christa Hill

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