For several years now, Rod Dreher, a writer and friend whose books I’ve enjoyed, has advocated “The Benedict Option” as a strategy for faithful Christians in a post-Christian world. This month, Dreher’s new book defines the term and lays out his strategy.
What Is the Benedict Option?
The Benedict Option builds on the last sentence of Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which the famous philosopher, after outlining all the ways in which mainstream society has reached a point of no return in its trajectory toward the dissolution of ancient paths of virtue, says this:
“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
MacIntyre wrote those words 36 years ago. If in 1981 MacIntyre saw our civilization in the late afternoon hours drawing toward the sunset, Dreher today sees our society fading into dusk. For this reason, it’s time for Christians to make sure that no matter how dark it gets, our light mustn’t go out.
What is the way forward for a civilization in crisis? Dreher lays out the plan:
“If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and practice. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.” (3)
The floodwaters of cultural change and anti-Christian morality are rising, and now is the time to stop fighting the flood by piling up sandbags and instead start building an ark that will make it possible for us to deal with the flood’s aftermath.
“Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.” (12)
For Christians, this means we need to remember who we are before we can recommit to being who we must be. So, Dreher says, it’s time for a strategic withdrawal with the purpose of cultivating habits and practices that will fortify our faith and hope.
“If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have.” (19)
That last sentence is key to the Benedict Option. If we don’t have vibrant Christian convictions and practices, then our churches will fail to stand out in the world. We cannot offer to the world what we do not possess.
“Christians often talk about ‘reaching the culture’ without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been coopted by the secular culture they wish to evangelize.” (102)
A New (Old) Strategy
Dreher uses the Rule of Benedict and the monastic tradition of the sixth century as a prototype for how Christians should consider faithfulness in this era. No, he doesn’t recommend we all become monks and move into the desert. Instead, he wants us to recognize the importance of training our hearts to love the right things, of embracing the spiritual disciplines and habits of the ancient church, and of revisiting the church’s liturgies and doctrinal preparation.
The beauty and brilliance of the Benedict Option is Rod Dreher’s insight that we cannot offer to the world what we do not possess. We cannot reach a culture if we have not built a culture of our own. The church must be fortified through vibrant Christian witness and spiritual disciplines if we are to be faithful in the days ahead.
That’s why the best parts of the Benedict Option are not about withdrawal, but about culture-building. He wants to see the church flourish from the margins, as a robust witness to Christian truth that will last through difficult times. This reminds me of my time serving in Baptist churches that had weathered the storm of Communism in Romania. They were against the world for the good of the world.
“The parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society.” (94)
A Bad Posture
The potential danger of the Benedict Option is that some Christians would claim it as the primary option for Christian witness today, which would lead to an overly defensive posture toward the world.
Consider the metaphors used throughout the book: a thousand-year flood, the most serious crisis since the fall of the Roman empire, “we’ve lost on every front.” Waterloo. The dark age to come. The coming storm. An earthquake. Babylon. When Dreher recommends we follow the example of monks who literally headed for the hills, I worry that the dire warnings in this book will cultivate a posture that is much too defensive, a fatalistic view of society that breeds long-term cultural pessimism.
Progressives always think they know the way the world is going, and that arc is always bending toward justice. They’re often wrong. Conservatives sometimes think they know the where the world is headed, that things are inevitably getting worse. They’re often wrong, too. A better approach is that of Chesterton, who said in the 1930s in the years before WWII, “the world is what the saints and prophets saw it was; it is not merely getting better or merely getting worse; there is one thing that the world does; it wobbles.”
We sense the world wobbling a little more than usual these days, but that should lead us to a recommitment to Christian mission. The fundamental posture of the Christian should be missionary, not monastic.
To be clear, Dreher is not recommending passivity in light of cultural challenges. His focus is on building and rebuilding, shoring up the foundations. At times, he uses the metaphor of “the shire” to make this point, where we are able to display to the world a new vision of human flourishing, similar to the homeland of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings.
I love the image of the shire and the need for Christians to have a vision of culture-creation in our churches and communities. That kind of culture-cultivation is what appeals most to me in Dreher’s proposal.
But the storyline of The Lord of the Rings focused on a mission. Someone has to take on Mordor and the orcs with the humble faith that goodness will win out in the end, right? “Seceding from the cultural mainstream,” as Dreher advises, would not preserve the Shire; courage in the face of unbeatable odds was necessary.
Likewise, the image in Scripture of the church is not a fortress besieged by barbarians, but of a missionary people battering hell’s gates. Mission, not maintenance, is the story of the church in Acts, which was under far greater threat than anything conservative Christians face today.
That’s not to say that the purity and fortitude of local congregations should be neglected. Dreher is right here. What’s the point of being a city on a hill if there’s no light in the city?
So, while I affirm Dreher’s strategy for the strengthening of local Christian communities, I question the defensive posture that coincides with it. Christian mission is oriented toward winning a spiritual battle, not surviving a spiritual siege.
[For a symposium of Christian thinkers responding to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, click here.]