iAt Book Club–The Benedict Option: Optional? and For Whom?

April 6, 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 fourth 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

I was first introduced to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option in April 2015 at the Q Ideas Conference in Boston, MA. At that time, Dreher had simply coined the phrase and seemed to be in the beginning stages of formulating his arguments for the “option” and subsequent plans. Now, two years later, I’ve just finished reading the book The Benedict Option and I’m as intrigued by Dreher’s ideas as I was two years ago. I’m intrigued, but don’t sign me up quite yet. While I have many questions and concerns about his ideas, my main ones are these—is this truly an option for all people, and could there be other options we should consider first?

First, is this an option for everyone? Dreher calls his idea “the Benedict Option”, but is it really an option for all people? Or is this available only for those with privilege? As the social scientist of the book group, I feel it’s my duty to think about how Dreher’s “option” might affect people on the fringes of society—the marginalized.

For example, the second half of the book is dedicated to laying out some of the specific implications of the “option”. This includes a new view of Christian’s involvement in families, politics, education, work, and church. I won’t go into the specifics of these plans now, but my overall reaction was to think about how this might affect or exclude those of low socioeconomic status. Dreher talks of the creation of “Christian village”, which at its root is the family, but he also talks about church as the foundation of this community; a major flaw in Dreher’s plan seems to be accessibility to this community for the poor and lower class. This seems to be an option only available to those with money and power. Already today, significant divides exist between the rich and the poor, and gentrification has pushed people of poverty out of many urban areas. We tend to cluster not only by race, but also according to our placement on the social and class hierarchy. By following Dreher’s ideas, might we not end up driving a larger wedge between the classes? If the middle to upper class Christians all go into “community” with one another, where does that leave our brothers and sisters who cannot afford this “option”? Are we truly ready to share our resources with the poor so that they can join these Christian enclaves? As Scott said in his piece, Dreher, a supporter of free enterprise, is unlikely to support this challenging and yet seemingly necessary aspect of his suggested communities.

Second, is it truly optional? Dreher seems to say we must do this or else, and yet he doesn’t really state the overall goals of this option—what exactly are we hoping to accomplish? Can we ever plan to emerge from this cloistered existence? Dreher says that the “forces of dissolution from popular culture are too great for individuals or families to resist on their own” (p. 50) and therefore we must “embed ourselves in stable communities of faith”. While other authors have had commentary about the state of our current culture wars, they have given alternatives that seem more about engaging with the broader society than about removing ourselves from it. Dreher, on the other hand, finds the solution not to be engaging with culture, but instead, to “build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity” (p. 54). This way of life is characterized by an eight-part rule that includes order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance. I won’t take the time in this piece to flesh these out, but each, while an important component of Dreher’s option, yet doesn’t seem to be anything new or novel.

At one point, he says, “We’re a minority now, so let’s be a creative one, offering warm, living, light-filled alternatives to a world growing cold, dead, and dark. We will increasingly be without influence, but let’s be guided by monastic wisdom and welcome this humbly as an opportunity sent by God for our purification and sanctification” (p. 99). He predicts we will continue to lose our political influence as Christians, but he suggests that people might look to us as an alternative. What if they don’t? Are we prepared to stand on the sidelines and watch the inevitable decline of our world and society as Dreher predicts will happen?

Overall, while Dreher’s diagnosis and prognosis both hint of a “the sky is falling” mentality, there seems to be some accuracy to these statements. He does, however, fail to recognize that this may not be true for the Christian faith overall. As my colleague Gustavo pointed out in his last piece and as Jamie Smith has said in his critique of the book, Dreher seems to be talking primarily about white Christianity in the U.S. His diagnosis does not seem to apply to churches of color where the Christian faith seems to be thriving rather than being “bracketed away” from other parts of believers’ lives (p. 75).

Perhaps Dreher’s Benedictine solution is not the only option. Maybe those of us concerned about the future of white Christianity in America would be better off visiting our brothers and sisters of color in their churches. Maybe we should study and then model what’s keeping the church in the global south thriving and growing. Maybe the answer isn’t drawing further into ourselves and doing more navel gazing, but instead seeing what we can learn from our friends and neighbors who are not staring up at the sky, waiting for the next piece to drop.

About the Author
  • Erin Olson serves as Professor of Social Work as well as the director of the MSW program at Dordt University. She also enjoys her many other job descriptors of mom, wife, licensed clinical social worker, and dog-owner, which keep her active and connected to community!

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  1. Dreher lost me when he began with the assumption that Christianity as a cultural power is roughly equivalent to retaining traditional sexual mores and expectations about gender.

    It’s disappointing but not surprising that he could so easily confuse the two.

  2. A few thoughts. First, can we retire the epithet “privilege”? My experience suggests that “privilege” often functions as an ad hominem to shut off certain criticisms. Social scientists of a post-structuralist bent can define the set of conditions that describe privilege, and proponents of identity politics make much of privilege, but in this piece it seems to function as a synonym for economic wealth. Money is a BIG DEAL, especially in a market economy, but let’s talk about it directly rather than through the lens of privilege.

    Wealth comes in many forms and economic wealth is only one. Household and community relations and relationships are also a form of wealth (or poverty) and they do not correlate perfectly with economic wealth. I believe that Dreher is telling Christians to spend more of their efforts cultivating relational wealth than economic wealth, something to which I suspect anyone in social work would assent.

    Focusing on relational wealth creation raises its own set of questions. First, how can healthy (wealthy) relationships be created in the absence of economic wealth? This is an especially vexing problem in a market economy on hyper-drive. At least one short answer is: get the economically wealthy to support the economically poor. Easier said than done since it’s unlikely a call to Bruderhof-style community of possessions will gain much traction. Yet, foregrounding diaconal ministry (and giving) in the life of Christian congregations and creating local inter-church, community-based diaconal service organizations is a viable approach to providing the economic floor for enhancing relational wealth.

    Second, will a renewed focus on relational wealth creation among the well-off work to the detriment of the economically poor? Seems unlikely. After all, it’s never wrong to do right.

    Finally, I believe it is incumbent on those who see the gaps in Dreher’s approach to come alongside him to fill those gaps. Those content only to criticize (and I am NOT suggesting Professor Olson is one of them) will share the blame when, ultimately, nothing is done. Declining relational wealth characterizes many poor, whether Black or White, urban, rural, or (increasingly) suburban. It also increasingly represents the condition of the lower- and mid-middle class in America. Increasing relational wealth (community, koinonia) SHOULD characterize the Church and churches. Let us all strive to that end.

    1. Privilege is most definitely not just about wealth.

      The criticism being lodged is, I think, helpfully illustrated with an example like the following. Imagine a BenOp community of white Evangelicals forming out of some Chicago churches. Off they go to the north woods or upper peninsula. Or maybe they find some cheap land in the mountains of Idaho, or an old plantation in the deep south. Now suppose you are black person in this same congregation of the same socioeconomic class with about the same politics. You are sympathetic to the BO cause. You’d like to go along too. Kind of. But you sense there are special risks and losses, costs you are likely to incur the others will not experience or understand. Think about what those might be.

      The US, where Sunday is the most segregated hour, has been resegregating over the past four decades. For those Christians who see the early church and Pauline Christianity as definitive of their evangelical ideal, this is more alarming than than the things that alarm Dreher.