iAt Book Club: The Benedict Option

April 7, 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 fifth 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

Thanks for the thoughtful responses so far. There is much to consider already, and since this is not a full, formal book review there is much left unsaid.

Before that, however, a note: most of us (except for Gustavo) are writing from a small, Reformed college in rural NW Iowa. So, at first glance, many of the book’s concerns might not register as our first concerns (speaking solely for myself, of course). And if one would look around Sioux Center many of the prescriptions in this book are already being practiced in this community. Many of the concerns Dreher raises (the alarmism he is being accused of), we only know by turning on the television or reading the newspaper. Or looking at the outrage du jour on Twitter. At this point, our livelihoods are not threatened because of what we believe. However, we would do well to listen to the diagnosis and the proposed solution. After all, even in a small corner of Iowa that has been heavily influenced by Abraham Kuyper, a call to reject Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and a call for the church to be the church must be heard.

I appreciate Donald’s framing entry which does a good job of unpacking some of Dreher’s major arguments. At this point, there is not much on which to offer further comment in relation to his framing. I think his distinction between seeing ourselves as being in exile versus being ambassadors is a fair one, and likely does explain some of the push back that Dreher is receiving. I would agree with Donald that Smith and Dreher may seem to be operating with different imaginative visions, but I wonder if that has to be the case. As I was reading his thoughts, my mind went to Jeremiah 29:7 so I was glad when he quoted it. Though as I reflect on the entire verse—“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”—we see that it is the Lord who has sent his people into exile. It would be helpful to remember why the people were in exile. It’s not as though they were faithfully living as God’s people and were taken into exile as a result. They were sent into exile by God as a punishment.

But back to the distinction between being exiles or ambassadors. I would ask, “Can’t we be both exiles and ambassadors?” Both are images of the people of God in Scripture. And indeed, as I think you can acknowledge, the people of God have lived in a state of exile. Our citizenship in heaven will always put us at odds with the place on this earth where we reside. It’s just now, at least for many Christians in the West (though not all), that the effects of being exiles are finally being felt. Scott makes a similar point in his first entry. I’m reminded of some words from a letter that Samuel Rutherford wrote in the first half of the 17th century, “If ye were not strangers here, the dogs of the world would not bark at you.” If Dreher is right, and overall I think he is, they have been barking all along and only now do we have the ears to hear them. Despite that, this is not Dreher’s main argument in the book. However, probably due to his years of blogging on issues of the culture wars, it is what is getting the most attention in many of the reviews of his book.

All that to say, what Dreher is saying isn’t really all that new. Stanley Hauerwas and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus made similar arguments in the past. And Dreher is not the only one saying it now. Archbishop Charles Chaput, R.R. Reno, and Anthony Esolen all have recently released books that cover similar terrain to Dreher. His prescription too is not entirely new, and overall does not seem all that controversial (leaving aside some of his comments on education). But, I think, the fact that his thoughts are not new is one of Dreher’s points. So I would ask – Is it doable in the context of the evangelical culture in the United States?

So much of evangelical culture has been and remains banal. How do we expect adults who grew up in churches to create culture rather than creating a “Christianized” copy of the surrounding culture? Orthodox and Catholic Christians, whether they know it or not, have something of a culture to fall back on. So does the African-American church. To an extent, the Reformed church does as well, but in my experience, many Reformed churches simply copy the evangelical approach to culture but wrap it in an often thin veneer of a kind of Reformed theology.

When you’ve never had to create culture, it becomes hard to know what to do when your efforts to copy culture have failed—and now the culture you find yourself in is not worth copying. As Dreher writes, “A church that looks and talks and sounds just like the world has no reason to exist” (121).

I could say more—and I hope to in future posts. Going forward I’d like to engage a bit with my fellow contributors, and possibly consider more why this book has evoked the reaction it has. Most of this post was written before I had the chance to read the reflections from Gustavo and Erin. And I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time criticizing Dreher for suggesting that Christians need to retreat into the hills and build high walls to keep everyone else out…only kidding. I really don’t know how many times he has to say that isn’t what he is calling for before people believe him.

As we read books such as this one we must also move away from hopelessness and despair. Even if Christians have lost the culture war, that larger battle has already been won. Sound the alarm if you wish, but do not lose hope. Christ is still resurrected. And Jesus is still Lord. This is the message that we need to remember and that the world needs to hear.

I could be wrong about some of this, and am glad to be corrected. I look forward to continuing this conversation.

About the Author
  • Robert Lancaster serves as the Electronic Resources & Reference Librarian at Dordt University. In addition to his library degree, he also has some degrees in theology.

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