On July 12, 2017, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) hosted a panel discussion titled “Responding to the Benedict Option.” On this occasion the panelists evaluated the book of the same name written by Rod Dreher, who is a senior editor at The American Conservative. In The Benedict Option Dreher calls for the “strategic withdrawal” of traditional Christians, who he says need to root themselves more deeply in the historic faith (2). The impetus for this recommendation is the onslaught of cultural hostility and internal decay—both in doctrine and practice—he believes the Western church faces today (9–11). According to Dreher, strategic withdrawal will require Christians to “leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity,” and in some sense to separate themselves from the larger culture: “If believers don’t come out of Babylon and be separate, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally, their faith will not survive for another generation or two in this culture of death” (2; 18).
Dreher’s call for withdrawal was poorly received by many of the panelists. Joseph Capizzi—professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America—accused him of promoting an “ecclesial introversion” unbefitting of Christians, who “know we are called to engage the world”; Cherie Harder—president of the Trinity Forum—advised Christians to “show the love of Christ to our lost neighbors” rather than “heading for the hills whether metaphorically or literally”; and Alison Howard—director of Alliance relations at Alliance Defending Freedom—asserted that withdrawing is “not an option for believers . . . . If we retreat, the world will miss us. We need to be there.”
The panelists’ characterization of the Benedict Option as a retreat from cultural engagement typifies much of the book’s critical reception. David Fitch writes in Christianity Today, “We cannot . . . make a choice between living in Christian community or being present in our culture,” because we cannot “extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are.” Rather, the church must be “both a faithful internal community and a faithful external presence in the world.” Also in Christianity Today, K. A. Ellis rejects what she takes to be the Benedict Option’s solely “inward focus” in favor of communities that are “creatively focused both inward and outward,” and Hannah Anderson cautions, “Retreat could actually exacerbate our individualism by disabling a key piece of our systematic: the call to actively and intentionally work for the good of our neighbor’s soul.” She exhorts Christians to instead build community “as a form of advance, not retreat.”
In a BreakPoint feature where Christian thinkers were asked about the Benedict Option, Joshua Chatraw—executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University—criticized it for having “an overly inward focus” at odds with “God’s mandate given in Genesis 2 [and] Jesus’ commission to go to the nations [as well as] the missionary pattern described in Acts.” Greg Forster—director of the Oikonomia Network at Trinity International University—commented, “Transformation is needed, but withdrawal does not transform.”
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As a response to this pattern of critique, I intend to argue that the Benedict Option does not conflict with the Kuyperian tradition, and moreover has some affinities with it—even if unintentionally—for the Benedict Option does not call for a retreat from conventional politics or cultural engagement more broadly, but affirms both of these things.