iAt Book Club: The Benedict Option

April 4, 2017

This week iAt begins its first book club series featuring the book, “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” by Rod Dreher. Return to iAt throughout this week as various voices are added to the series, as they interact with one another, and respond to the book. Series contributors are Donald Roth, Scott Culpepper, Gustavo Maya, Erin Olson, and Robert Lancaster. This is the second part of the series. 

Title: The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
Author: Rod Dreher
Publisher: Sentinel
Publish Date: March 14, 2017
Hardcover: 272
Price: $25.00
ISBN: 978-0735213296

Donald, you have done a great job framing the major arguments of Dreher’s The Benedict Option and analyzing the structure of the text. I think you correctly note and quote that, in many instances, Dreher’s recommendations for action amount to “giving a name to” the idea that the church be the church. The major takeaways seem to be that Christian families should operate like Christian families, Christians should pursue an intentional strategy for shaping education and spiritual formation for the young, and local Christian communities should seek to implement Christian ideals within their immediate spheres of influence. They must do these things while extending the hand of what Dreher calls “hospitality” to the larger culture as a whole. This dynamic may well be part of the problem Dreher is having with his critics. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the notion of the “Benedict Option” and the publication of the book, much of it pushed by Dreher himself. It has been amusing to me how often Dreher has defended his views by accusing his critics of either not reading his book or misunderstanding his argument. If Dreher is correct that his critics are reading more into his argument than he intended, it may well be because he promises much and delivers little that is original. People are investing his work with novel interpretations because one would expect novel proposals after his rather dismal and apocalyptic diagnosis of Christian prospects in American culture. Thus, this lack of originality, weak engagement with historical context or nuance in historical interpretation, and a naiveté regarding how quickly and easily separated Christian enclaves can degenerate into insular authoritarian communities are my primary critiques of the book.

Since I am the resident historian in this discussion, I will act true to form and focus on a couple of the historical and political issues raised by Dreher. An extensive treatment would take much more space than I have here, but there are at least a couple problems that I can highlight. First, Dreher does deserve credit for recognizing that fighting the “culture wars” has been both futile and probably counterproductive. One could make the argument that evangelicals and Catholics in America have strengthened the hand of the very forces they have opposed through the politicized methods they have used to fight these cultural conflicts over the last forty years. I also think he is correct in arguing that the Trump presidency is a coda rather than a turning point in our cultural conversation. Christians have not escaped having to face the realities of living in a pluralistic society. Trump’s election has only delayed that conversation. And the coming strong reaction against his presidency and all who supported it is likely to put orthodox Christians in an even more difficult position in regard to mainstream culture. His attempt to propose a third or even fourth way beyond the polarized and limited options presented for Christian consideration by both the “religious” right and the “secular” left is laudable. The problems are in the details, and some of those problems are in the historical details. To paraphrase the great Enlightenment wit Voltaire, the Benedict Option does not seem to be very Benedictine and it is really not clear what the option is.

For example, is Dreher actually advocating some kind of cloistered existence for Christians? Sometimes it seems maybe yes, such as when he visits the modern version of Monte Cassino in Italy, but, at other places, he insists that he is not suggesting that we all become monks. In fact, what he is suggesting sounds to me more like the notion of an Anabaptist Hutterite Bruderhof than a Benedictine cloister. The only thing missing is an incorporation of the Hutterite community of goods or custom of sharing all things in common, a proposal that is definitely not going to come from the pen of a champion of free enterprise like Dreher. If Dreher wants to highlight the positive potential of Christian communities existing alongside mainstream culture, he ignores a multitude of examples from earlier American history. Again, nothing he proposes is new. What he suggests resonates so powerfully with Donald’s memories of growing up in Christian Reformed communities because Dutch immigrants were living the kind of life Dreher recommends as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Attempts to create communal utopias have been prolific in American history, from early Shaker enclaves to Brook Farm to more recent communal experiments among the “Jesus People” of the early seventies. What is different now is that people who were once in the cultural majority are learning how to deal with the same outsider status that minority religious groups have faced throughout the length and breadth of American history.

Dreher’s choice of the Rule of St. Benedict as the tool to frame his essay on Christian community seems to me a major reason for interpretive misunderstandings of how radically separated he intends this community to be. What he is actually proposing is no different from the basic strategies Christians have employed to create and influence local communities for centuries. Dreher would readily admit that even Benedictine communities were not as separated from the larger cultures of medieval Europe than popular Protestant stereotypes would allow, but he does not make this reality clear enough in his book. He also neglects to mention the contribution of Irish and Scottish monks whose traditions grew separately from Benedictine monasticism and greatly enriched medieval monasticism when their traditions eventually merged with English Benedictine monasticism. When Charlemagne established Benedict’s Rule in monastic schools across Europe, it was a combination of political and ecclesiastical influences. And while Benedictine contributions certainly helped salvage much of western culture during the early medieval period, the story is more complicated and nuanced than simply stating that the Benedictines single-handedly saved western culture. And Benedictine communities had their problems as well.  The notion that medieval Benedictine monasteries represent some apex in the pursuit of Christian community rests on sandy foundations, in light of the fact that monastic leaders were clamoring for reform of those communities in the ninth and tenth centuries (only a hundred years after the emperor Charlemagne had supported their establishment throughout his realm). And with that, I will yield the floor, because I have already gone longer than I planned.

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  1. Dreher’ profession is journalism. Journalism–good journalism, anyway–is great because it introduces and explains complex ideas to a mass audience. Indeed, much of Abraham Kuyper’s success can be attributed to his adroit use of journalism to take simplified versions of his theology and praxis to the masses.

    Culpepper is correct that Dreher oversold his project. He took the idea of the BenOpt from Alasdair MacIntyre but Dreher is no MacIntyre (or Charles Taylor, for that matter) but so reduced its bite that he’s been swallowed by his own hype.

    Of course, Dreher is selling lots of copies of the BenOpt, something that I suspect sticks in the craw of some of his critics. I hope that whatever its shortcomings as a work of scholarship, groups of Christians who find tackling thicker stuff too daunting will read the BenOpt and talk about Dreher’s suggestions.

  2. The Dreher-Smith debate makes more sense if you understand its context. Dreher has blogged his thoughts about why Smith turned from a supporter to a harsh critic, but he was blindsided by the charge that BenOp amounts to a very white Christian withdrawal from our cities while less affluent and non-white Christians fight on in the churches and schools alone. If you have read Smith much over the past few years (especially his twitter feed) you will recognize he is making an argument against Dreher’s BenOp that he hates when it is made against Christian education. Smith does not like the argument that advocacy for Christian education amounts to advocacy for white Christian withdrawal into homogenous enclaves. His usual defense is that there are some racially diverse urban Christian schools, which represent something of an ideal for Smith. Conservative Christian enclaves do remain extensively white enclaves, and if they insulate themselves further Smith fears this will validate critics of private education as a privileged enclave for white students that drains support or simply does nothing to help minority communities.

  3. Enjoyed the review. I especially enjoyed your bit about Charlemagne and his support of monastic communities in Europe as I am about to talk about that today in my Western Civ. class. Of course, Charlemagne’s scope of influence was much broader than the walls of the church in the early Middle Ages. It is sad to see a lack of nuanced historical care, yet, Dreher is not a historian. If he had given more time and care in regards to the historical treatment, do you believe his argument would have been better?