There is an irony, then—and a difficulty—in the title of Rod Dreher’s latest book, The Benedict Option. He paints a bleak picture of Christianity’s future in a “Post-Christian” nation, barring a radical shift in the American Church’s self-understanding. “Is the Christianity we have been living out in our families, congregations, and communities a means of deeper conversion, or,” Dreher worries, “does it function as a vaccination against taking faith with the seriousness the Gospel demands?” (12). If the latter proves true—as Dreher suggests—then at many points the way of life he presents under the auspices of “the Benedict Option” seems like the only viable alternative to cultural and ecclesial death in America. That is to say, the Benedict Option is not, strictly speaking, optional. That fact is not so much a difficulty for Dreher, though, as for his critics.
Dreher really had little choice but to orient his book to the pre-existing scheme of a “Benedict Option,” since it was the tapestry of lively and controversial discussions around the “Option” that created the demand for the book in the first place. Meanwhile, his own understanding of the Option seems never to have been confined to the historical person of St. Benedict or his rule for monastic living. He refers to Alasdair MacIntyre’s discussion of a bankrupt and decrepit Roman society, out of which St. Benedict emerged. “Saint Benedict had taken the proper measure of Rome. He acted wisely by leaving society and starting a new community whose practices would preserve the faith through the trials ahead” (18). Benedict, then, is a fitting figurehead for a Church preparing to radically adjust its way of living in the West. The life may not be optional in Dreher’s mind, but it seems safe to assume the name is. As a result, critics who fixate on the absence of Benedict or Benedictine practices from whole sections of the book will miss engaging with Dreher and his true intentions.
A Benedict Option way of life is one committed to creating and living within ‘parallel structures’ or a ‘parallel polis,’ “separate but porous societ[ies]…in which the truth can be lived in community” (93). Dreher sees these markedly Christian societies existing alongside the dominant sociopolitical order, but engendering a distinct identity among their members. “Think of teachers who make sure kids learn things they won’t get at government schools,” Dreher suggests. “Think of writers who write what they really believe and find ways to get it to the public, no matter what the cost. Think of priests and pastors who find a way to live out religious life despite condemnation and legal obstacles, and artists who don’t give a rip for official opinion. Think of young people who decide not to care about success in society’s eyes and who drop out to pursue a life of integrity, no matter what it costs them. These people who refuse to assimilate and instead build their own structures are living the Benedict Option” (95). Christians aren’t being tortured and killed in the U.S., but in a nation where many Christian University campuses aren’t distinguishable from secular ones and where church services feature Memorial Day sermons on Ascension Sunday, a little cultural antithesis might be in order.
Another reviewer points to a real ambiguity in Dreher’s thinking at this point: are “Christians called to sustain communities of faithful witness within a powerful but hostile Empire for decades and centuries to come, or are we called to establish havens of order and virtue in the chaotic ruins of a collapsed civilization until we can rebuild strong cultural and political institutions?” The answer, I think, is two-fold. If, on the one hand, the exact nature of this option is at times ambiguous, it may be due to the fact that the option encompasses the whole of life. In that sense, it is not easy to wrap one’s mind (or a few clever sentences chapters books around). In that sense, too, it is not, strictly speaking, optional. At one point, Dreher shares this snippet from a conversation about the B.O.: “People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes!…But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” (142). If, then, ‘Benedict Option’ is simply code for orthodox Christianity, one might expect it to adapt (without compromise, of course) to every new age, as the Church has always done.
On the other hand, all futures are hard to see, and a reticence to make detailed predictions about the Church’s may be a mark of wisdom. While The Benedict Option has attracted a number of befuddling criticisms including the charge of doomsday alarmism, I find nothing in the book that suggests (Church) history is static or unswervingly linear. To write of things getting worse is not the same as declaring that things will never get better. Biblical history suggests, instead, a series of epicycles in which even tragedy and fall are temporary movements in the larger trajectory ‘further up and further in.’ The grave was not forever, but the grave was—and no one preaching through the Gospels would label Christ an alarmist for predicting his own death. The Babylonian exile was not forever, but the Babylonian exile was. The flood was not forever, but the flood was. Importantly, too, Noah did not know how long his family would have to spend in the ark; only that it should be made with “lower, second, and third decks” and be filled with every kind of living creature. That is, the ark was to be the world in miniature (three stories: heavens, earth, depths under the earth) until a new and greater world was ready to inhabit.
The ark is a helpful image for understanding what Dreher has in view—not an escapist separation, but a preparatory one. Dreher points to the readiness of many American Christians to take moral direction from the prevalent culture, and to the bleak hardship of passing the Christian faith to our children as poignant signs of a dangerous homogeny that has grown up between America and the Church in America. He fears that we are less and less a separate polis in the way St. Paul sets out for us, but only a shrinking interest group within the one pluralistic U.S. polis. The “Option” is to live, for a season, in a manner most conducive to remembering how to live as the Church in the world. Because we have compromised our singular identity in favor of the world’s modes of life and of thought, that option looks radical. A man cannot remember (in any efficacious way that involves the whole person) how to be a faithful husband while still living under the roof of his mistress. Moses had to leave Egypt in order to learn a new way of relating to the Egyptian world. Even the Lord went into the wilderness.
Uproar about what the book asks of its readers is slightly befuddling, given how stringently Dreher avoids making prescriptions. It is risky for a lay person to give direction in this context, but there is also a point at which prescribing a mast or sails or a water-tight hull to amateur shipwrights isn’t so risky or presumptuous as it is faithful (if a tad gratuitous). Like the ark, Benedictine monasteries do provide a faithful illustration of what the Church need. St. Benedict and his spiritual successors were humble and faithful men who understood their own work as a kind of ark building; not inventing a new way of life, but preserving and refining a way of life handed down to them by the fathers from the apostles. They were not setting up church as an alternative to ‘life,’ but creating communities in which there would be no distinction between ‘life’ and the life of the Church. The organizing assumption behind the Benedictine Rule is that all of life should be oriented toward bringing us closer to Christ, and Dreher is writing because he fears that for most of us it is not. He isn’t wrong. So it may not be a Benedictine abbot, and he wouldn’t want it to be Rod Dreher, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. Here is a book full of suggestions for faithful ways to do just that.
Rod Dreher. The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York, NY: Sentinel, 2017. 272 pp. $25.00.