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The Benedict Option

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher

I have possibly come late to The Benedict Option conversation.

I am not sure that I’ve been missing as much as some might have implied.

Rod Dreher calls for a “strategic withdrawal” from mainstream society, and terms this “the Benedict Option”.

Here is his rationale:

Alasdair MacIntyre… declared that Western civilization had lost its moorings. The time was coming, said MacIntyre, when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue. These people would find new ways to live in community, he said, just as Saint Benedict, the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, responded to the collapse of Roman civilization by founding a monastic order. (page 2).

Let’s just walk backwards into that. Firstly, Benedictines are not “a monastic order”; Saint Benedict never “founded a monastic order”; the Rule of Saint Benedict may have come, in time, to be dominant in the West, but Saint Benedict was not the first monastic in the West, and his rule is not the sole monastic tradition in the West; and Saint Benedict did not found communities as a “response to the collapse of Roman civilization”.

If I were asked to articulate my own spirituality, I would talk about the desert and the desert tradition, with monasteries as laboratories and hothouses to enrich that tradition, and the Rule of Saint Benedict as a wonderful focus for this tradition. I try and live this desert tradition beyond monastery walls. But I don’t think this is about some sort of escapism. Far from it! Rather, with the (monastic lifestyle of the) followers of Charles de Foucauld and the insights of Brother Roger of Taizé, I would look to Jesus’ metaphors that we be salt, and light, and leaven. There is good in God’s world, and our calling is to point to the good and enhance it. When there is evil in the world, we also join with all people of goodwill and reduce the effects of the evil as much as possible (that also is one of the qualities of salt).

Page after page of The Benedict Option refers to the “LGBT agenda”. Having grown up in a country in which (until relatively recently) LGBTs were illegal, I have seen no agenda other than acceptance of what gay theologian James Alison argues is a “non-pathological, regularly occurring minority variant”. I fully support such an agenda of inclusivity. That “the world” accepted this before “the church” leads Rod Dreher to his “Benedict option” and argue for building strong arks to sustain true believers in the sea of the dark age that has overtaken us. That “the world” accepted this before “the church” leads me to see God as active in God’s world (often continuing the momentum begun in Jesus and the Hebrew prophets) and embarrassed about “the church” which is stuck on this particular roundabout. [If you want to hop on this roundabout and debate this, there’s plenty of websites for that].

Much of the book reads as if USA is the paradigmatic post-Christian nation. Much of it reads as so much USA evangelicalism does (eg. Rod advocates for home schooling). Hence, there is online confusion about Rod Dreher’s own denominational position. Born in 1967, Rod grew up in the Methodist context. He joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1993. Since 2006, Rod has been a communicant member of the Orthodox Church (I do not use Rod’s “conversion” language – conversion is a much deeper movement, yes it may happen in changing denominations, but changing denominations is not identical to conversions). Orthodox Christians, normally however, do not understand Orthodoxy as being simply one denomination amongst others. Orthodox Christians understand Orthodoxy as the Church founded by Christ. Do keep that in mind as you read The Benedict Option.

There is much good in The Benedict Option – with challenges around money, technology, worship, prayer, education,… Archbishop Rowan Williams, himself well versed in Saint Benedict, his Rule, and the desert tradition says it well:

The book is worth reading because it poses some helpfully tough questions to a socially liberal majority, as well as to believers of a more traditional colour. Yet it also fails to note the irony of advocating what it does in a climate where liberal triumphalism has already been shaken by a very un-Benedictine set of influences, through the resurgence of populist conservatism and protectionism. And neither restating liberal nostrums nor Dreher’s “strategy of hibernation” – to borrow a phrase from Adorno – seems an adequate answer to this.

If you have read the book, what do you think?

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19 Responses to The Benedict Option

  1. I don’t have the book, I never heard of the book to this very moment, so I know nothing more than what you have poisted here. What I do know is that I believe that Jesus came to proclaim the inbreaking of the Commonwealth (Kingdom) of God and he taught/told us how to live in bringing that about.

    I think Jesus would be ashamed of followers who went into hiding because the going got tough. I believe that if it was Jesus’ intention to establish a church alongside the coming of the realm of God, that it was a hospital were the followers of Jesus would come for a bit of triage and first aid from a week’s advances and setbacks in proclaiming the kindom, to prepare us for another week of “fighting the good fight.”

    One could make a good argument that the time of Jesus’ ministry was a dark time for many, especially Israel. He could have led everyone to join a hidden community such as Qumran. But he didn’t. He hid nothing. And his open life of confronting the powers & forces of darkness led him to his ultimate example of how far it might go, they murdered him.

    I would relish living in community. If I were called to the right one I would enlist in minute. But it couldn’t be one that was hunkered down to ride out the “Dark Ages,” to then come out of hiding in a more convenient time!

    Some might think my simple faith naive and perhaps shallow. But it’s definitely what I feel in my heart. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Let it shine, all the time, let it shine.”

    • Thanks, David. We are on the same page. The Benedict Option is certainly significant – an online search returns 323,000 results! Blessings.

  2. I think Rod’s book doesn’t advocate hibernation but instead a refocusing of (US conservative) energies on rebuilding spirituality and faith community. It represents a helpful realisation that the imperium is not with us nor for us.

    McIntyre (quoted by Rod) puts it well:
    “A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.”

    There are strong parallels here with Rod’s own spiritual trajectory and his involvement with The American Conservative.

    I liked Rowan’s point:

    “Christians ought to be more like Orthodox Jews or conscientious Muslims: living visibly at an angle to the practices of contemporary society.

    This will demand a distancing from the assumptions of capitalism and the all-powerful market, and it will indeed entail the risk that Christians will find themselves de facto excluded from some professions.”

    Many Blessings

    • Yes, Chris. About half of those in some Orthodox Jewish communities in USA do not speak English, or barely speak it. I’m not convinced that this is a paradigm that a Christian in the 21st century “ought to be more like”. Blessings.

      • I’m pretty positive about people retaining their language and culture Bosco. The wonderful Anglican Three Tikanga Church seems to be an expression of this.

        To what extent one retains one’s religious culture and traditions; to what extent one engages with decadent late capitalist society, and how; and to what extent society has important things the Church ought to learn from as expressions of the Holy Spirit rather than condemn; seem to be the essence of the discussion.

        Anglicanism, founded as a state Church for political reasons, which has had it’s own engagement with these issues, would have much to offer to this discussion.

        There is also the practical matter of the particular factors involved in US conservative Christianity which could take the “monastic communities” model in very helpful directions, as I think +Rowan alludes.

        The irony in Rod’s book is that the very Trump victory he sees as a “breather” is in fact a classic case of conservative Christians abandoning both conservatism and Christianity in order to get into bed with state power.

        Many Blessings

        • Thanks, Chris. To be clear: I, too, am positive about people retaining their language and culture – and am personally an example of that in the face of a society set against that. The Three Tikanga approach is to be bicultural – which is precisely the opposite of The Benedict Option. Blessings.

        • Oops, meant to say “unhelpful” in “could take the “monastic communities” model in very UN-helpful directions”.

          What did you read in the Benedict Option indicating the opposite of bicultural ?

          My big picture overview of The Benedict Option is that a disengagement of US conservative Christians from fighting against gay marriage and gay civil liberties in favour of building up spirituality and faith communities, seems on face value to be a helpful idea.

          Many Blessings

          • A person who is bicultural, Chris, I see as being able to function in at least two cultures. I was picking up your metaphor as a way of being conversant with the culture that Jesus brings as well as the culture of the “secular world”. Translating The Benedict Option into this paradigm, I see it advocating a withdrawal from the “secular culture”. It is illustrated (continuing the approach) in having large numbers of Orthodox Jews in USA (to pick up that thread) not even being able to converse in English (the language of the surrounding culture). Blessings.

    • I can’t think of any community that I would least care to emulate than Orthodox Jews. I’ve not personally heard of one Orthodox community that wasn’t so convinced of their own righteousness that they didn’t heckle and persecute everyone around them who wasn’t part of them.

      I’m not sure who to look at when searching for a community of conscientious Muslims. Who are they? I know that in most western countries there are Muslims who maintain their beliefs & traditions and yet don’t insulate themselves from the culture around in the manner of Orthodox Jews. They are proud of the nations in which they live and participate in as much of the culture around them as they are comfortable. Are they of whom you speak?

      • David, My engagement with the local Orthodox Jewish synagogue has been very positive, although some can be uncritically supportive of the modern state of Israel (an example of the need for some critical distance with state power which Rod Dreher writes of).

        Here’s an example of a recent Christian/Muslim event I had some small involvement with which I think was a great success. http://www.anglicantaonga.org.nz/News/Tikanga-Pakeha/iftar

        The growth of Muslim communities in the West has much to offer both parties.

        Many Blessings

        • Chris, at this point I’m totally confused at what is it that you are advocating with these two examples that is already the norm in the US and I would guess most western nations.

          Muslims, Sunni, Shia & others, have been exchanging cultural traditions with others in the US for years.

          Jews of every denomination have been doing the same.

  3. I haven’t read this book yet, though it is on my ‘to read’ list at some point. I haven’t read it yet basically because I don’t consider it sufficiently significant to jump the queue.

    I’ve had a few parishioners speak to me saying they thought it was the ‘bee’s knees’ and just what the Church needed at this point in history when faced by what they perceive to be a hostile secular society. My usual response – “I don’t think that was what Jesus had in mind when he told the disciples to go out and teach all nations” – attracts either a startled look of surprise or a thoughtful look that might be interpreted as “I hadn’t thought of it that way before”.

    Like most books that parishioners and others speak to me about, I’ll get around to reading it at some point. And when I do, from the excerpts that I have seen and the reviews that I have read, I suspect my opinion of it will be something along the lines of your good self.

  4. Here’s a helpful interview with Rod Dreher where he clarifies what he is saying.

    Two quotes to give you a taste:

    “I think that for a long time devotion to the nation has served as a substitute for religion and has become parasitic on Christianity-at least conservative Christianity-and it’s been concealed for various reasons, but I think with the Trump victory it has come out in the open.”

    and

    “I do not call for withdrawal of Christians from the world into our own little enclaves, but what I do call for is a recognition that if we Christians are to be for the world what Christ calls us to be-and if our churches and our presence in the world is to be a field hospital-we have to withdraw from the world to a certain extent to build our own spiritual strength and form ourselves more faithfully in scripture and the teachings of the Church in prayer, fasting, and the traditions of the Christian life so that we can be effective.”

    https://cruxnow.com/interviews/2017/03/20/benedict-option-aims-balance-withdrawal-faithful-presence/

    Many Blessings

    • Sadly, since his concept of who are the Christians feels like it’s really just the conservative lot, so he has missed the fact that so many of us whom he ignores, have felt that way and have been living like that for quite some time.

      This past Sunday I was speaking with someone and pointing out that Jesus came to announce the inbreaking of the Realm of God and that the Church was the hospital we return to each week to get our wounds bandaged and and for refreshment so that we have the strength and fortitude to return to the battlefront and continue to announce the coming of the kindom.

      I can’t remember how many times I’ve tried to explain to conservative Christian folks in the US, that the American Dream ≠ the Commonwealth of God!

  5. I appreciate the review. Thank you. Can you please explain these two assertions: Benedictines are not “a monastic order”; Saint Benedict never “founded a monastic order”… I am just slightly puzzled.

    • Thanks, Ross. I don’t know what you understand by the concept of a religious order – I would understand such an organisation to be centralised at a mother house with overarching jurisdiction. Instead, St Benedict has individual monasteries with an abbot and the Rule. Such monasteries, today, are loosely affiliated into about twenty “congregations”. These cooperate together in a “Benedictine Confederation”. Thanks for seeking clarification. Blessings.

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