Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Book Reviews

The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher, Penguin Random House, 2017, 262pp, £14.25 (£10.99 Kindle)

Conservative American columnist Rod Dreher wants to save the world. Or at least he wants to preserve the church long enough that it can rebuild Western civilisation after its inevitable collapse. If nothing else, Dreher plays for the long game.

The path the church must tread if it is to survive: follow St. Benedict. Abandon fond illusions of “capturing the culture for Christ” and follow Benedict into the woods, hunker down in blessed isolation from the surrounding culture, and become really good at being the church. Then we shall be the kind of church worthy of saving the world.

There are more nuances and qualifications, but that’s the gist. Some of his qualifications ring a bit hollow, though. For instance, he keeps telling his readers that he is not being alarmist, generally right after he has told a scary story about someone losing their job or child or church to “liquid modernity”, the antagonist of our tale (previously called “acidic modernity” in his columns at The American Conservative).

The book begins by (naturally) sounding the alarm, showing how the “great flood” (he’s fond of deluge imagery) is swamping the remnant of “orthodox” Christendom. By “orthodox” he means all good conservative Christians: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or conservative Protestant. The particulars of denomination and theology concern him little here (an issue to which we shall return presently). Newly aggressive secularism should alert the church to its true peril. He traces the roots of our cultural crisis using metaphors of cultural decline (e.g. Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Vandals at the gates of Rome). Drawing loosely on analyses from both Radical Orthodoxy and Charles Taylor, he pins the inception of our present crisis on medieval nominalism’s critique of metaphysical realism, the idea that there is a way things really are. William of Ockham tried to preserve God’s freedom but actually opened the door to increasingly man-centred and constructivist ways of seeing the world that have landed us in radical individualism, the sexual revolution and gay marriage. It’s more complex, of course, but that’s the upshot: abandoning realism means abandoning spiritual sanity.

He then relates the Benedictine origin story, how through discipline and strategic withdrawal, Benedict was able to shepherd the Christian faith through the dark and barbaric ages to come. The metaphor is compelling: we too face a dark age and we need a fortress. We face a deluge and need an ark. Dreher recommends the Benedictine Rule as the antidote. It can be applied outside the monastery: to a Catholic neighbourhood, a Christian school or the household as a mini-monastery. The moral: we can overcome the approaching darkness through intentional communities that practice discipline, withdraw from the corrosive parts of society (especially popular culture), and go deep into our own traditions. Then he explores various challenges the Church faces: politics, the shallowness of the contemporary church, modern disintegration of community, secular education, discrimination against Christian teachers and other occupations (bakers, etc.), the new sexual ethic (or lack thereof), and technology (especially the internet and social media). In each case, the solutions are similar: intentional communities born of discipline and strategic withdrawal.

Is Dreher’s message relevant for British Evangelicals? His target audience seems to be exhausted American Christian culture warriors, worn out from decades of battle with the liberal élites, now (temporarily) reinvigorated and hopeful in the time of Trump and resurgent “values politics”. Dreher comes alongside them and says in soothing tones, “You’ve fought well, but it’s a losing effort. Christian political activism is doomed for now. Come away. The battle’s over, but the war is just begun. Time to dig in and wait, faithful through this dark night until we can re-emerge.” That message – part alarum, part reassurance – should be enticing to British Evangelicals as well. They, too, feel alienated and vulnerable in the face of local and national authorities who are, if anything, more aggressively secular than those in the States. There are plenty of conservative British Christians who already see cultural withdrawal as the road to faithfulness.

Let us assess his message. The Benedict Option surely has important merits. Dreher’s prose is lucid and entertaining. The man is a master storyteller. His insistence that Christians need to recapture “thick community” and a “thick culture” is much needed. Secularism tends to thin communal ties and traditions, as polling data regarding Christians’ knowledge of the Bible, doctrine and practice readily reveal. The natural drift of modernity tends towards the fetishising of individuals’ desires. We need heart reformation and communities that can speak truth and grace deep into each other’s lives. All of this is true and necessary, and Dreher should be rightly commended.

But is pursuing intentional, “thick” community necessarily at odds with engaging surrounding culture (even popular culture)? Dreher certainly thinks so. It is precisely here that I believe he departs from biblical orthodoxy in a number of ways:

  1. Christ explicitly called his disciples (who, too, felt vulnerable in the face of a hostile culture) into the world, into the culture that surrounded them (John 17:14-18). So he calls us. We are simply not at liberty to abandon secular society to its own devices.
  2. The strategic withdrawal Dreher advocates often seems more concerned with protecting one’s own than with loving those outside our communities. (This is especially disturbing at a time when many American Evangelicals compulsively support a man who is really into building walls.) Dreher still largely operates within the American culture-war mentality, except he’s choosing flight rather than fight. Failing to withdraw, for him, means losing our culture, our church, our children etc. There is another way: deep, intentional community that sends us out into loving engagement with the surrounding culture, including moderns in all their fluidity. A deep understanding of the gospel leads inevitably not to withdrawal for self-protection, but into mission to, and engagement with, culture.
  3. Dreher’s theology lacks any category of common grace. For him, secularism (and the popular culture it spawns) is simply evil, full stop. There is no recognition that even non-Christians are created in God’s image, and therefore the culture they make will inevitably gesture towards God’s goodness and light, despite their alienation from him. Culture will always be a mixture of good and bad, truth and lies. Christians need a nuanced understanding of non-Christian culture that Dreher apparently lacks.[1] The result is a mixture of nostalgia and alarmism that compels withdrawal (versus Eccl 7:10).
  4. In addressing “small-o orthodox” Christians (whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant Evangelical), he overlooks important doctrinal distinctions. There are evangelical precedents for this, such as Francis Schaeffer’s “co-belligerency” with Roman Catholics regarding abortion in the 1980s. However, I fear that Dreher’s blithe disregard for the particular differences between these traditions ends up producing an idol with a very different soteriology: cultural conservatism, entrenchment and discipline will save us, and perhaps the world as well. Conversely, if we fail to appease this god, the consequences are dire: the Church will collapse, and the West will be consumed by the darkness it has itself generated. Winter is coming.

This stands in stark contrast to the biblical message of hope that stems from worshipping a sovereign God who can save anyone, who preserves his Church through the darkest episodes, and will reign victorious at the end of history. Does Sola Gratia and Solus Christus mean nothing anymore? When Dreher points to Orthodox Jewish communities and Czechoslovak dissidents as models for Christian community, one detects a serious indifference to doctrine, or even the advocating of foreign gods.[2] Who needs grace? Who needs Jesus? We’ve got resilient conservative communities. We’ll be fine.

This may be a reflection of his own Eastern Orthodoxy: God saves only through certain disciplines and rituals. If you do the right things, God comes close and preserves. If not, abandon hope. But if God still reigns over history and saves by sovereign grace alone through the finished work of Christ, we can pursue intentional community and engage culture without fear.

There are plenty of evangelical churches in both the UK and the US that are both committed to intentional community and cultural engagement. If we wish to live faithfully in a post-Christian age, look primarily to such communities rather than Benedict. Hope in our gracious Saviour and be faithful to your calling. We have no other option.

Ted Turnau
Lecturer in cultural and religious studies, Anglo-American University and Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic


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