iAt Book Club: The Benedict Option

April 3, 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.

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

When figuring out who would kick off the inaugural book discussion roundtable at iAt, we decided that someone needed to be tasked with framing the book itself so that folks at home could follow along. By group consensus, it was decided that I should be the one thrown under the bus, so what follows is my attempt to let you cheat by reading over my shoulder as I boil a 250-page book down into a couple of paragraphs. I will follow the summarizing with a few impressions about the book and some of the early responses it’s getting. We hope to make this a bit more of an informal (but substantive) conversation, so we warmly welcome your comments throughout this series.

TL;DR: The Book in a Nutshell

The Benedict Option … t’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.”1

Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option aims both to diagnose the illness of the era and to prescribe a solution to that problem. As Dreher sees it, American Christianity has spent the better part of the last century waging a culture war by focusing on the acquisition and maintenance of political power, rather than building deep-rooted local communities that could impact broader society as an influential subculture. Dreher says that we stand at a crisis point in the modern West due to the rise of moral relativism, man-centered faith, and the enshrinement of personal autonomy as the best measure of what makes us who we are. In this crisis, the culture war is lost, and Christians need to look for a new strategy.

To find this new strategy, Dreher draws on analogies and examples from a number of faith traditions. He looks to Orthodox Jewish communities that have weathered incredible hardship; he looks to Mormon communities and their remarkable cultural resilience; but, primarily, he looks to the model of monastic communities and their efforts in the West to weather the cultural upheaval of the fall of Rome. In fact, the name of The Benedict Option is Dreher’s application of the Rule of St. Benedict, a practical manual drawn up to order those monastic communities.

Dreher’s solution channels some of the themes of the Rule into a modern community. The major themes that Dreher identifies are:

  1. Order – ordering our whole lives toward God’s service,
  2. Prayer – immersing ourselves in God’s presence through prayer and Scripture-reading,
  3. Work – treating our work as a calling before God,
  4. Asceticism – learning to deny ourselves,
  5. Stability & Community – being deeply rooted in communities of faith,
  6. Hospitality – maintaining an open and benevolent attitude toward the broader culture,
  7. Balance – maintaining all of the above in a spirit of moderation and grace.

Dreher emphasizes the importance of church, home, and school in a way that resonates deeply with what I was raised to value in the Kuyperian tradition, and there are many other aspects of Dreher’s analysis which may sound familiar. His discussion of anthropology draws on Charles Taylor; his diagnosis of a problem in the church is rooted in the research of Christian Smith and others, and he explicitly promotes James K.A. Smith’s emphasis on the importance of both practicing intentional liturgy in the church and recognizing cultural liturgies in our daily lives.

With all that is familiar here, one might expect a relatively warm reception around the broader Christian community (Dreher certainly seems to have thought so), but the book has proven surprisingly controversial. Consider, for example, the strongly-worded rejection of Dreher’s thought by James K.A. Smith in the Washington Post. I’m sure the rest of the book group will want to talk about some reasons for this response, along with their own reactions, but I will to use my remaining space to venture only one possible “why.”

Metaphorical Differences: Why Our Views of Kingdom and Discipleship Matter

Here, I am willfully overlooking questions I could raise about Dreher’s historical analysis, focus on mainstream (white) evangelicalism, or insistence on a classical educational model. Instead, the thing that I found most curious coming away from the book was how uncontroversial most of its recommendations are. Particularly in the narrow focus on church polity, Smith and Dreher recommend something very similar; so, even if their diagnoses differ, why all the heat and fury when they prescribe much the same treatment?

Aspects of this controversy remind me of theological disputes over the way Christians relate to the Kingdom of God: the “what” and “why” might be diametrically opposed, but the “how” in the way we should interact with the world can be shockingly similar. When studying that controversy, I began to develop a theory to explain the division, and, like a kid trotting out his favorite toy, I’m going to try to explain this dispute in terms of my theory about what I call operative metaphors.2

When it comes to living out our Christian lives, the way that we see our roles as disciples and how we conceive of the kingdom of God are of vital importance. There are many principles and rules that we can draw from Scripture in describing these two things, but really feeling them, really living them, is rooted in our imagination. Without indulging myself too much further, my theory is that there are a limited number of Biblical images on which we draw while imagining our role in the kingdom, and, while all of these roles have a Biblical basis, we will find ourselves resonating more with some over others based on how we resolve a number of tricky practical and theological questions.

There is no question that a number of mysteries and tensions lie at the heart of the Christian faith. How do we emphasize both belief and action (faith v. works)? How is the Kingdom “already” and “not yet”? How should we live “in the world, but not of it”? How do I discern between a communal and an individual calling in Scripture? Should the church focus its efforts inward or outward?

I recognize that I’ve framed most of these questions as a binary, and, while a binary is rarely reflective of truth, it is often reflective of our tendency to think about truth. If there is some inherent tension in our beliefs, psychologists tell us that we will try to resolve that cognitive dissonance; a key method of doing so is to lean, be it ever so subtly, one way or another. I think this leaning is human nature, as a result creating a sort of gravitational pull on our imagination such that we naturally sense something “off” when we sense that Christians lean different ways on these key issues.

If you’ve hung with me through that tangent, the crux of it, I think, is this: for all of their agreement on certain practical applications, Smith and Dreher are drawn to different imaginative visions of what role the church and believer play with respect to the kingdom. Reading Dreher, there’s an obvious affinity for viewing Christians here as exiles in a foreign land, while Smith, I suspect, would be more prone to talk of Christians as ambassadors or kingdom builders.

If I’m right, naming these tendencies may be helpful in engaging with this issue. Exile and ambassador/builder just feel different, don’t they? If you pick the one that you feel you agree with less, think through why that is. If you’re suspicious of exile, is it because that sounds like detachment from the world coupled with a persecution complex? Yet, those who resonate with this metaphor will point out that the Jewish exiles, which this metaphor draws richly on, were called to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7) to which they were taken.

In my experience, many (not all) Christians who resonate with being exiles will moderate their imaginations with reminders like the verse from Jeremiah, but they’ll still talk like exiles. Practically, this means that two people—such as Smith and Dreher—may sound quite similar, but the overall tone between the two is dissonant because their outlooks feel different. If naming our biases can help with clear thinking in other areas, perhaps naming our tendencies of imagination could be a useful addition to this sort of dialogue.

What do you think? Does this concept help in explaining some of the disconnect between these two men? What other reactions or responses do you have to The Benedict Option?

About the Author
  • Donald Roth serves as Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Co-Director of the Kuyper Honors Program, and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Dordt University.

  1. Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (Penguin, 2017) at 142.  

  2. Forgive me, but here—if you’re interested—are some shameless plugs to pieces I’ve written on this topic.  

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  1. You may be onto something, Donald. Given its largely anodyne conclusions, it’s hard to account for the explosion of vituperation about The Benedict Option (BenOpt). Perhaps pre-theoretical imaginaries and affective stances explain matters. Also, based on some interactions with a few of the players, thin-skinned personality types are also in play. Finally, playing the identity-politics card is also tediously common today.

    But back to your point. The roots of both one-kingdom-every-square-inch neo-Kuyperianism (emphasizing the “now” over the “not-yet”) AND Christians-as-exiles (the “not-yetters”) are biblical. Most folks go with the one they like, the one that makes them feel good, without acknowledging that each is as biblical as the other. When to deploy which large-scale metaphor requires prudential wisdom, which is regularly in short supply. Yet–now–recognizing our own affective bias would be a good place to start

    1. Thanks for this, Scott. This proved to be an interesting opportunity to apply a theory that I’ve been cooking up about certain metaphors we use for discipleship and how they can affect the way we talk about theology, particularly public engagement. I agree that the best place to start is to learn to name some of those biases, in this case, not to reject them, but, given the various valid Biblical views out there, to at least discern when we might be failing to communicate because of them.

  2. Thanks. I wanted to better understand the book and the controversy, but didn’t want to slog through the book. This was very helpful.

    1. I’m glad you found this to be helpful, Carol. The book’s not too much of a slog, really, but it’s not perfect, either.

  3. Enjoyed the review, Donald. I find your idea about operative metaphors intriguing and even enlightening. Would you find some of the philosophical basis for this reasoning in Smith’s work (i.e. “Imagining the Kingdom”)? It sounds like you are using some Augustinian anthropological framework when using words like “feel” and “imagination” (i.e. our loves shape us more than our thoughts).

    I did not read your scholarly article about operative metaphors, but I have pondered why kingdom imagery in Christian churches, schools, and institutions leads to certain amounts of bifurcation. In my own experience, I have found that a decent amount of disagreement has a lot to do with how Christians interpret Genesis 1-3. And, this disagreement is not necessarily focused on the origin debate but more so on how we view the meaning of Creation and the Fall. A few questions that I find lead to certain levels of disagreement: Are Christians more “agents of reconciliation” tasked with regaining creation or “pilgrims in exile” looking to lead quiet, faithful lives in community? What are the effects of the Fall on Creation? What does the Fall mean for humanity?

    Maybe it is telling that I even capitalize the “f” in Fall as to which side of the pilgrim/agent metaphor I feel is more helpful. In any regard, thanks for writing a thoughtful review.

    1. Hi Cole,

      I’m glad you found the review useful. I developed my theory as part of wrestling with questions of how we view discipleship while leading the senior worldview course here at Dordt. That course previously assigned part of Desiring the Kingdom (now using You Are What You Love), but yes, I do draw a little from Imagining the Kingdom as well. In that last book, Smith quotes extensively from Mark Johnson’s “The Meaning of the Body” which argues that our understanding is often couched in terms of metaphor (e.g. relating emotional intimacy to physical proximity – “We’re close.” “He seems distant.”) I suspect that something similar is true when it comes to how we give concrete direction to a more abstract concept like discipleship, embodying it within a metaphor that has an implied narrative arc to it that helps us imagine the role we should play.

      I’m not full Augustinian in that I wouldn’t say our loves shape us MORE than our thoughts, but I do think that our desires and our unconscious interaction with the world around us play a primary and often underestimated role in who/what we are.

      As to the fall issue, a related theory that I have is that there are a number of tensions within Christianity which have some of the attributes of what J.I. Packer calls an antinomy. That is, they have the appearance of contradiction while both are equally true. For instance, I think the kingdom/exile distinction lies largely along whether one thinks primarily in terms of the “already” or the “not yet.” A similar pseudo-antinomy that I see is exactly what you mention with the Fall, that is, Creation is both made good and yet fallen in sin. It seems very difficult to emphasize both the fundamental goodness of Creation and the permeating effects of the Fall in a way that does justice to both. I think “living in the world, but not of it” can pose similar challenges, and I think many debates within Christianity can be boiled down to some of these fundamental tensions.

      I hope to get a chance this summer to write more extensively on both topics, but it’s always encouraging to me when people find my initial thoughts in this area helpful.