Book ReviewsCulture

Book Review: “The Benedict Option”

I. Introduction

This article has been percolating for a very long time. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t reflect on how my faith intersects with the evolving American public sphere, and I’ve probably spent more time writing and rewriting this review than just about anything I’ve worked on in the last couple of years.

Plainly, American Christianity stands at a cultural crossroads. And with the release of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, American Conservative senior editor Rod Dreher lays out a definitive treatment of the cultural paradigm he’s been sketching for the last several years. Try as I might to ignore Dreher’s proposals (because, let’s be honest, they’re uncomfortable), something about the Benedict Option idea keeps drawing me back. The subjects Dreher’s model implicates—religion, institutional authority, economics, sociology, political theory—undergird basically everything I’ve spent most of the last decade studying and writing about, and many of his cultural predictions have ultimately proven prescient.

In a nutshell, Dreher describes the world of the Benedict Option as “a world in which the church will live in small circles of committed believers who will live the faith intensely, and who will have to be somewhat cut off from mainstream society for the sake of holding on to the truth.” (4) The idea has its roots in Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal work of moral philosophy After Virtue.

I’ve previously critiqued earlier conceptions of the Benedict Option as potentially counterproductive, and, more recently, argued against its seeming undercurrent of sympathy for illiberal democracies. But since this idea has clearly been developing in Dreher’s own mind, I’ve wanted to reserve full judgment until this book officially hit the shelves.

II. Bias Disclosure

In a very insightful recent blog post, Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs asks critics of the Benedict Option to acknowledge the risk of motivated reasoning: the temptation to be unduly critical, in the full knowledge that taking Dreher’s argument seriously would involve personal lifestyle changes that are unpleasant and risky. I think Jacobs is spot-on: if I’m going to criticize the Benedict Option, it’s only fair I disclose any potential conflicts of interest up front.

So I’ll admit it: I definitely have a vested interest in non-Benedict Option ways of living out Christianity in America. I’m on the cusp of graduating from law school and joining the profession. I believe strongly in defending religious freedom for members of all faiths, from the Little Sisters of the Poor to the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. I like having the freedom to write for a broad range of secular publications and academic journals. I like pursuing Christian-informed dialogue with modernity. Sequestration, retrenchment, and anti-modern habits aren’t really on my radar right now.

Accordingly, when I argue that The Benedict Option’s cultural alarmism isn’t entirely warranted, readers should take my observations with a grain of salt. I’m not unbiased (though I’ll do my best to evaluate things fairly). That being said, given that readers may disagree with my attempt here to defuse some of Dreher’s apocalyptic rhetoric, I still maintain my earlier Benedict Option critique: even if we assume the worst about the future direction of culture, certain aspects of the model probably won’t successfully achieve their own goals.

One final preliminary thought: while this is a critical review of Dreher’s book, I hope it will be received in a conciliar spirit (it was certainly written in one). The length of this review is a testament to the seriousness of the stakes involved and the importance of the ideas in play; accordingly, this analysis should be seen as a reflection of the great respect I have for Dreher’s incisiveness and ingenuity, even though I disagree with him on many things.

III. What The Benedict Option Gets Very, Very Right

The Benedict Option does so much so well that it’s hard to know where exactly to begin. In dissecting some of its more controversial elements further on in this review, I don’t want that recognition to be lost: this is an extraordinarily well-written book that says plenty of valuable things. It is because this book will be influential that I want to engage with it thoughtfully.

Dreher opens The Benedict Option by tracing the process of secularization and disenchantment that produced the modern order. Most of this will be familiar to those reasonably well versed in conservative scholarship, but for new readers, it’s a helpful gloss on MacIntyre’s work. The academic and cultural world is full of theories about the sociology of religion, many of which I don’t find particularly compelling: this one resonates.

Building on that conceptual foundation, The Benedict Option positively nails the problem of widespread religious illiteracy among American Christians. In lieu of theologically coherent orthodox Christianity, many Americans embrace “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a “mushy pseudoreligion” that is “mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others.” (10)

I entirely agree with Dreher’s diagnosis and discussion of this problem. Without a robust understanding of doctrine, the universe of historic Christian theology and faith—the investigation of questions of ultimate concern—makes little sense. Moreover, the substantive answers to these questions do matter: in the words of John 4:24, those who worship God “must worship in spirit and truth.” And purely as a matter of sociology and demographics, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism doesn’t give the established church much of a leg to stand on.

That being said, I question Dreher’s attempt to commingle this intellectual problem with his critique of modernity per se; it seems like a stretch to assume that most residents of past Christian cultures were fully versed in doctrine. There is a powerful tendency in some conservative quarters to dabble in a kind of retro-utopianism, which romanticizes the pre-modern past as an era of simplicity, faith, and community before the intellectual depredations of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. This tendency is dangerous. Let’s consider some negative features of the pre-modern past: routinely fatal childbirths; sky-high infant mortality rates; venal religious authorities more interested in serving secular power than serving God; widespread sales of indulgences to commoners who had no way of knowing whether they were deceived; widespread deaths from readily treatable illnesses; dispossession of property due to the lack of a developed “rule of law”; and so forth. I could go on (I haven’t even mentioned the usual evils—slavery, ubiquitous violence towards women, rape as a weapon of war, burning of religious dissidents—commonly cited in progressive accounts of history). Indeed, the very act of writing and disseminating a book like The Benedict Option wouldn’t have been possible in earlier ages.

Dreher realizes this, describing the medieval world as “wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning.” (46) But I’m skeptical that monastic communities’ commitment to their faith exemplifies a widespread popular sentiment—at least among non-scholastics—that “medieval societies, including products of their technological knowledge, were ordered to God.” (225) In a pre-modern time where today’s democratic processes were fully in place, I’d venture to guess the social order would be quite far from Benedictine. But I digress.

Back to positives: The Benedict Option reflects an amazingly detailed, affirmative vision for rebuilding Christian civil society. Dreher gets admirably specific, stressing at length the value of prayer, fasting, and family investment in the life of the local church. In the course of sketching such a vision, he also devotes extensive space to profiling Christian schools that couple rigorous academics with solid theological instruction. This discussion is one of the book’s best elements: I entirely agree with Dreher that the classical approach can be an effective counterweight to the pressures of modernity. In his words, “[c]lassical Christian education is the new counterculture.” He’s probably right. (173) As someone whose own primary, secondary, and tertiary education was heavily steeped in the classical tradition, I can personally attest to its enduring value. In making this point, Dreher critiques the incredible impoverishment of a life devoted solely to credentialing (building a child’s life around getting into the right college, and then the right job), and I can’t agree with him more. (166) My family never imposed such pressures on me, and for that I’m exceedingly grateful.

Finally, as The Benedict Option draws to a close, Dreher sets his sights on the impact of technology on modern life. He argues that “[t]o use technology is to participate in a cultural liturgy . . . that the only meaning there is in the world is what we choose to assign it in our endless quest to master nature.” (219) I’m inclined to think this thesis is a bit overwrought, but his more targeted points—that constant digital stimulation damages our ability to engage in contemplative prayer, that smartphones can be corrosive to community-building, and that scientific progress is not always an unalloyed good—are well taken, and devastatingly incisive.

IV. Against Alarmism

The gut-level power of The Benedict Option lies in its timeliness. Dreher announces that “we’ve lost on every front . . . the swift and relentless currents of secularism have overwhelmed our flimsy barriers. Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians.” (9) He clearly sees doom coming for theologically conservative Christians in America, and pulls no punches in forecasting future authoritarianism: in Dreher’s words, “[e]veryone working for a major corporation will be frog-marched through ‘diversity and inclusion’ training and will face pressure not simply to tolerate LGBT co-workers but to affirm their sexuality and gender identity,” (181) and “[i]t will be impossible in most places to get licenses to work without affirming sexual diversity dogma.” (180)

Most Benedict Option discussions take Dreher’s grim vision for granted. For my part, I’ve spent the last three years ensconced in an institution that frequently stands at the forefront of progressive activism, and (at the risk of relying too much on personal anecdote) I’m sincerely skeptical of the scenarios Dreher describes. During my time here, I’ve witnessed leading social conservatives boldly and respectfully articulate their views on campus without sparking protest. Ryan T. Anderson, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, participated in a pre-Obergefell debate over same-sex marriage and was met with respectful applause. Last month, R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, critiqued progressive pushes for “multiculturalism” and “diversity,” but there was no backlash in sight.

In light of silences like this, Dreher’s mass persecution thesis doesn’t really explain what’s going on. Why aren’t socially conservative speakers immediately shouted down on all left-leaning campuses? Why hasn’t there been a fierce public effort to strip Princeton professor Robert George, perhaps America’s foremost socially conservative intellectual, of tenure? Why haven’t social media mobs assembled to hound First Things out of its office space in New York City, or drive The American Conservative from its home base in Washington, D.C.? The elites of secular neoliberal culture seem oddly uninterested in purging the prominent social conservatives from their own ranks.

While I’ll admit my thinking on this point is embryonic, I’d tentatively suggest that many of the phenomena Dreher discusses aren’t occurring independently of other political upheavals. In his 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, social scientist Charles Murray paints a compelling (and data-driven) portrait of two Americas: an ever-wealthier cultural elite, comprised of those who sit at the apex of institutional and media control, and everyone else (Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex made a similar argument in 2014).

When I read about the public controversies involving Barronelle Stutzman, Memories Pizza, and Elane Photography, I’m inclined to think the narrative isn’t as simple as Dreher’s “Christianity versus LGBT.” These are cases involving small businesses, not longstanding prestige-generating institutions, and the people who are targeted aren’t Murray’s “cultural elites.” And while I certainly wouldn’t defend Kim Davis’s refusal to comply with the post-Obergefell law, I’m also not the first to note that there was something deeply unbecoming about cultural elites’ rush to publicly flay a dowdy Kentucky clerk. I’m accordingly tempted to say that many of these controversies aren’t really about the advance of gay rights; they may simply be proxies used to reinforce elites’ cultural hegemony. That is a much thornier social problem than Dreher’s framing of the issue as specific “anti-Christian targeting”—and it’s a problem that correlates with the rise of Donald Trump.

Dreher contends that “[w]e tell ourselves that these [cultural] developments have been imposed by a liberal elite, because we find the truth intolerable: The American people, either actively or passively, approve.” (9) This is a tremendous claim, and one that requires evidence Dreher fails to provide. Indeed, the stunning, against-the-odds election of Donald Trump throws Dreher’s core narrative—progressives oppressing Christian conservatives—into real turmoil. (The Benedict Option feels very much like it was written for a Hillary Clinton presidency; passages referencing Trump’s election amid surging populism feel as though they were tacked onto a preexisting argument.)

Nearly invisible in The Benedict Option is America’s enormous bloc of more-or-less “traditionalists” who are very angry about progressive cultural shifts, even if they lack the historical or liturgical vocabulary to join in Dreher’s critique. At one point in The Benedict Option, Dreher comments “an LGBT activist group called Campus Pride has put more than one hundred Christian colleges on a ‘shame list’ and called on business and industry not to hire their graduates.” (182) I found myself reminded of the controversial Professor Watchlist website, recently released by conservative group Turning Point USA, which publicizes the names of leftist faculty members on university campuses. Some professors on the Watchlist have reported receiving death threats from the American right. I’m naturally inclined to believe that both such death threats and Campus Pride’s calls for hiring bans emerge from the same morass of broader cultural fragmentation.

Institutional decay is not limited to Christian churches: the phenomenon is widespread, and not even progressive juggernauts are immune. Journalism, for example, has been facing a professional crisis amid rising political polarization for the last decade, and university educations have been reduced to the level of consumer products. Dreher is rightly concerned about institutional delegitimization, but I think he assumes secular progressive institutions are comparatively stronger than they are.

In short, it seems that today’s American cultural landscape can’t really be reduced to Dreher’s dyadic view of “Christians and secularists.” Ours is instead a triadic age, where traditional Christians will increasingly find themselves out of sync with culturally progressive neoliberals and dissident right-wing populists. That’s an angle I wish The Benedict Option had probed more deeply.

V. It’s Not (All) About Sex

In outlining the cultural breakdown narrative that undergirds The Benedict Option, Dreher places perhaps too great an emphasis (I’m not the first to note this) on the sexual revolution and ongoing pushes for LGBT equality contra religious traditionalists. I found myself thinking that a historically savvy critic could readily drag-and-drop other issues—the Reformation, the end of “divine right” thinking, the development of evolutionary theory—into the same elegiac framework Dreher deploys.

I don’t mean to suggest that sexuality-oriented issues aren’t culturally salient, or interwoven with Dreher’s concerns. Consider the Obama administration’s intransigent opposition to a reasonable accommodation for the Little Sisters of the Poor in last year’s contraceptive-coverage case. As the Supreme Court correctly (and unanimously) held, there was no reason the government had to force its point so aggressively to achieve its goals: there was an easy solution that wouldn’t have raised religious freedom concerns. Obviously, arguments over the intersection of religion and sexuality are at the forefront of today’s cultural battles, and it has become de rigueur to trace these controversies to Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. (Dreher calls it “the Waterloo of religious conservatism.” [9)])

But unbeknownst to most Americans, today’s clashes between antidiscrimination law and religious freedom significantly predate Obergefell. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Bob Jones University v. United States that the IRS could deny tax-exempt status to the university due to a policy that restricted interracial dating. In the Court’s own words, “the Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education—discrimination that prevailed, with official approval, for the first 165 years of this Nation’s constitutional history. That governmental interest substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners’ exercise of their religious beliefs.”

No conservative I know would defend Bob Jones University’s racist policy on its merits. But the logic of Bob Jones University suggests that when sufficiently compelling antidiscrimination interests are juxtaposed against religious freedom claims, religious freedom claims lose. And on the other side of the political spectrum, Bob Jones University helps explain why so many progressives are uncomfortable supporting religion-based exceptions to secular antidiscrimination laws: arguments for religious freedom have periodically been deployed in support of racial separatism.

I’m certainly not implying that religious freedom claims should consistently lose to antidiscrimination arguments—after all, the very existence of religious institutions is predicated upon the ability to set group boundaries and define the terms of membership. Rather, I mean to point out that in the legal/political sphere, these types of arguments aren’t just about sexuality. Dreher doesn’t comment on the fact that conflicts between secular antidiscrimination law and the free exercise of religion are not new.

And just as a side note, I tend to think that attributing American cultural decline exclusively to sexual license (including Internet pornography) is myopic. As the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Samuel James has noted, excessive video gaming often goes hand-in-hand with the sustained porn use Dreher notes (and one might even go further, connecting this kind of “psychosocial anesthetization” with the unfolding epidemic of drug abuse). There’s a real and distinctive malaise there, with a narrative that runs deeper than just “sex and technology are dangerous”: Charles Murray captured this well in Coming Apart, and I wish Dreher had dug a little deeper into the connectedness of these phenomena.

VI. What Is the Benedict Option, Really?

Since review copies of The Benedict Option first went out, Dreher has been responding to early critiques via the column he writes for The American Conservative. Over and over, he has pushed back against charges that the Benedict Option entails some sort of cultural withdrawal or sequestration. This rejoinder isn’t exactly new: for the last year or so, there’s been something of a “no true Scotsman” problem where the Benedict Option is concerned. Dreher has responded to many, many criticisms by simply stating “that’s not what I’m talking about.”

I’ve read virtually all of Dreher’s columns and a great number of other responses to his work, so I feel reasonably qualified to say that the problem isn’t that reviewers “don’t get it.” The problem is that attempting to pin down specific Benedict Option principles of cultural engagement has been like trying to nail Jello to a tree: at times, it’s positioned as a mindset committed to deep spiritual practices and communal flourishing, and at other times, it’s framed as a much harder-edged break with modern culture. In other words, it’s still not clear to me whether the Benedict Option should be understood as an adjective (a broadly “Benedictine” way of viewing the world that should be internalized and applied to diverse contexts) or a noun (a binary lifestyle choice that Christians either “take” or “don’t take”).

I don’t want to put words in Dreher’s mouth, but saying there’s not something of a separationist streak to the Benedict Option feels disingenuous. In calling Christians to “quit piling up sandbags and . . . build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again,” (12) Dreher very clearly is urging a degree of cultural retreat. The name itself conjures up images of monks hiding out in monasteries, protecting Christian truths against the ravages of a Dark Age surging around them. Dreher even suggests a radical transition from “shifting from working with one’s mind to working with one’s hands,” noting that “it might be more spiritually profitable too.” (190)

For all Dreher’s disavowals of this characterization, The Benedict Option often rhetorically veers toward “head for the hills” territory. “Blacklisting will be real,” Dreher declares (182), further observing that “[t]he challenge for some Benedict Option Christians will be to find and relocate to . . . faraway places on the margins of the Empire.” (192) He doesn’t hesitate to throw down a provocative gauntlet: “Are we prepared to relocate to places far from the wealth and power of the cities of the Empire, in search of a more religiously free way of life?” (192) If Dreher wants to argue that the Benedict Option really isn’t about cultural retreat and radical separation from modernity, these passages perhaps should’ve been excised before publication.

And you’d be forgiven for harboring a healthy skepticism about the long-term viability of such “hard” Benedict Option communities. “Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option,” argues Dreher. (84) But elsewhere, he notes bleakly that “[a] young Christian who dreams of being a doctor or lawyer might have to abandon that hope,” (193) and that “[f]aithful Christians who foresaw a professional career for themselves or their children will need to give the trades a second look. Better to be a plumber with a clean conscience than a corporate lawyer with a compromised one.” (192) Assuming we take Dreher at his word, who exactly will be defending religious liberty in the decades to come?

On a similar note, Dreher argues that one goal of the Benedict Option “is to create business and career opportunities for Christians who have been driven out of other industries and professions.” (186) I found myself wanting to shout that American evangelicalism has been doing this for decades, and it hasn’t always worked out well. Christianized paracultural institutions are already an essential feature of the American religious landscape, but they haven’t stemmed the tide of secularization.

Full disclosure: I don’t identify as “evangelical” (I would self-label as a “confessional Lutheran”). But I’m quite familiar with evangelical culture, and it started to frustrate me that nearly every example in Dreher’s book was either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (the LDS Church also gets mentioned). I’m not the first to make some version of this observation, but Dreher’s general reticence to discuss American evangelicalism is an unfortunately missed opportunity for The Benedict Option. In a recent conversation with Southern Baptist Convention president Al Mohler, Dreher commented “I don’t know evangelicalism well enough to make a solid critique of it.” It’s impossible, though, to understand the dynamics of American Christianity writ large without a solid grasp of evangelical history and identity.

I think what I would’ve most liked to see in The Benedict Option is a comparative analysis of how American Protestant denominations’ historic traditions might undergird thriving institution-building (Dreher alludes to this on page 112, but given the attention he devotes to Catholic and Orthodox institutions, his failure to do this really undermines his argument’s reach). Recapturing these histories need not be a hopeless cause: Baptists have the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith; Presbyterians (and some Baptists) have the Westminster Confession of Faith; Lutherans have the Augsburg Confession; Methodists have the Articles of Religion; and so forth. It’s quite possible the scope of such a project would be enormous, but an “anti-secularization thesis” as sweeping as Dreher’s deserves more than the brief treatment it’s given here, and I’d eagerly read a book that’s three or four times longer.

And as it were, old-guard evangelical power is (unexpectedly) politically ascendant once more. In voting for Trump, a huge number of white evangelicals have implicitly aligned themselves with today’s populist quasi-conservatism, and it’s not entirely clear where this cultural road will lead. Are they all part of the Moralistic Therapeutic Deist crowd?

This discussion is highly relevant to Dreher’s purposes: evangelicals have already forayed into the world of countercultural, Benedict Option-style institution building. Though Dreher doesn’t say so explicitly, it’s clear he thinks they’ve failed (he stresses the importance of liturgy and sacramentalism—and I agree with him completely on this front—but doesn’t satisfyingly connect these elements to evangelical culture writ large). Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is undoubtedly the theological flavor of the age.

But why did this counterculturalism fail? I recently ran across a professor floating the idea of a “Benedict Option law school.”  This surprised me, because it’s not like this hasn’t been tried before—consider Trinity, Liberty, Regent, Ave Maria, etc. Why don’t these fill the identified need? Before one calls for building more institutions, they ought to find out why the ones they have don’t work.

That’s an important question, so I’ll take a stab at answering it.

Allow me a personal anecdote. Prior to law school, I graduated from an evangelical liberal-arts college heavily influenced by the classical tradition. I’m not proud of doing this, but as a freshman, when I didn’t know how to conclude a scholarly argument, I’d drop in a Bible verse or some reference to Plato (I wasn’t penalized for this as stiffly as I should’ve been). Even if I wasn’t wrong in the argument I was making, my method of argument risked reinforcing lazy habits of thought: someone who didn’t accept my priors would have no reason to agree with my position. These kinds of assertion-based arguments are meaningless for those not committed to a sort of presuppositionalism.

This intellectual option was off the table in graduate school: if my professors don’t already agree with me (and accept my priors), I need to work much harder to translate my views into a common vocabulary. And on this note, it bears mention that the secularity of modern academia doesn’t foreclose serious scholarly engagement with the orthodox Christian tradition. As a graduate student, I’ve written papers tracing the development of prosperity theology concepts in law, probing the statutory interpretation methods of Roman Catholic canon law courts, articulating the “sacramental” aspects of the judicial process, and defending a reinvigorated conception of Hugo Grotius’s natural law theory. Obviously I had to defend my arguments rigorously when pressed, but my professors treated these ideas with respect, and I’ve become a much better writer for their detailed critiques.

From this position, I’ve also found myself gaining a deeper appreciation of the Christian heritage that I didn’t fully grasp or value as an undergraduate. In college, I sometimes felt frustrated, as if I was being sheltered from bad ideas because institutional administrators didn’t believe we could handle them. This bred a toxic resentment that, to my great detriment, led me not to cherish the school’s classical tradition as much as I should’ve.

I think this is why I’m so critical of Dreher’s historical alarmism: I’ve seen that countercultural institutions succeed most fully when they aren’t positioned defensively, as if they’re “weathering the storm” posed by the outside world or its disruptive ideas. They succeed because those who participate want to joyfully and affirmatively carry forward a tradition with which they will then engage the surrounding culture.

To boil all this down to one sentence, the spirit in which institution-building is done is bound up at a fundamental level with those institutions’ viability. The Benedict Option’s affirmative ideas, in some ways, feel dangerously fear-motivated to me.

This review has been quite sprawling, and there’s a lot more I could say. But to sum up all these observations, here’s my counter-thesis to the Benedict Option: in lieu of creating more “countercultural institutions,” I’m inclined to suggest that American Christianity should make greater efforts to connect and convene Christians working within secular systems. In New York City, Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church has been doing this through its Center for Faith and Work, which brings together Christians within industries ranging from fashion and architecture to finance and law, and many other organizations are doing something similar. If The Benedict Option forwent its full-bore doomsday prophesying in favor of outlining more “Benedictine habits of mind,” I think the book’s impact would be far greater.

VII. Conclusion

Perhaps the most natural counterpoint to The Benedict Option is R.R. Reno’s recent book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, which owes a substantial debt to Murray’s Coming Apart. Steeped in sociology and political theory, Christian Society is far less defeatist than The Benedict Option, and sketches a model for engagement focused on rebuilding the eroded institutions of civil society (though it’s less specific than Dreher’s book).

Reno argues persuasively that the supreme luxury of the modern elites is their ability to sequester themselves from the cultural decay they have facilitated. That same kind of sequestration, though untethered to class, is a deep-rooted flaw in The Benedict Option. Dreher’s countercultural reorientation, in its hardest-edged form, would seem to constitute a psychological—if not a physical—abandonment of an America in need of public moral institutions: a last-ditch gamble to avoid the worst effects of modernity. Notwithstanding my own biases and situatedness, I think Reno’s assessment is closer to the truth than Dreher’s.

And building on Alan Jacobs’ charge above, I might suggest that “hard” Benedict Option proponents themselves should be wary of motivated reasoning. Proclaiming “all is lost, we must retreat” is, in a way, its own form of easy cultural surrender; “taking the Benedict Option” risks embracing a form of the comfortable and the familiar rather than going boldly forward in the prophetic tradition of the Church.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read—and read carefully—The Benedict Option. At a time when public conservative discourse seems to have devolved into either warmed-over Reaganism or veiled white nationalism, Dreher’s proposal is genuinely new, controversial, and revolutionary. The questions The Benedict Option raises are questions that all American Christians should be weighing, whether they realize it or not. And purely as a matter of aesthetics, this book is an excellent and highly compelling read.

Those seeking to articulate a traditional Christian witness in the face of today’s social and political unrest will face future challenges on not one, but two fronts: secular progressivism and populist identitarianism (consider the backlash Russell Moore faced from his own denomination upon boldly engaging issues of racial and religious discrimination). Confronting those challenges will exact a personal price.

But as far as I’m concerned, if we are to die as martyrs in the public square, as Cardinal Francis George once predicted, let us die well and with hymns upon our lips.

 

* I received this book free from Penguin Random House Publishers as part of their NetGalley review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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John Ehrett

John Ehrett

A native of Dallas, Texas, John currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut. He is completing his J.D. degree at Yale Law School and recently earned a certificate in Theology and Ministry from Princeton Seminary.

  • Greg Herr

    Terrific review, John. Although I have not read the book, I’ve followed Rod and the BenOp from the outset, not to mention, the inimitable Chris Casberg right here in these fine pages on the same subject 🙂

    As an Evangelical, a hearty Amen, that a full-throated eval of the BenOp (Op might stand for ‘Opportunities’ too, in this case) among those tribes deserves a fair treatment. And as a Catholic, I can attest from across the Tiber that Rod misfires there, as well.

    But I continue to give him the highest marks for effort.

    Rod underscores (a) why I became Catholic, and (b) why the Catholic Church, Benedict’s church, IS the BenOp, when he said,

    “…Catholicism has the infrastructure and the population to support all kinds of local Ben Op efforts.”

    [Source: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/catholics-orthodox-the-benedict-option/ ]

    In support, I’d offer the same response I offered Chris Casberg some time ago, using Rod’s 12-point criteria, combined with my several decades of Catholic experience (so it’s highly subjective).

    I used a ‘football’ scoring method to try to get a sense of what Rod rightly indicates in his ‘infrastructure’ comment—basically, how far down the field toward the goal is the Catholic Church? Even though, like you, I’m biased, I tried to be as brutally honest as I could about what it’s really like to live out the Christian life—or the **opportunity** to live out the Christian life—as a Catholic.

    When I walked through the doors of Rome, I walked right into the BenOp.

    ++++
    So here is Rod’s outline with my perceptions of how well Catholic parishes do or understand Rod’s assertions, as well as the Catholic Church writ large:

    1) That orthodox Christianity is in fundamental conflict with the
    American liberal order, a conflict that is radical, and cannot be resolved;

    90.

    2) That orthodox Christians are a distinct minority in the United States, and that their convictions will make them increasingly be seen not just as dissenters, but as enemies of the common
    good;

    90.

    3) That uncritically accepting the liberal order that has now emerged means giving up on some core Christian convictions;

    95.

    4) That modernity has evolved to a point at which it is unstoppably corrosive of authentic Christianity, and that those who would hold on to Christianity must clearly and decisively understand themselves in opposition to modernity;

    85.

    5) That some sort of separation —conceptually, and to some degree literally (e.g., withdrawing to our own schools) — is necessary to maintain Christian faith and commitment amid thechaos of our time;

    80.

    6) That the only way orthodox forms of Christianity are going to survive over the generations to come is by instantiating them in communal institutions, practices, and customs, requiring
    a degree of commitment that has been unfamiliar to most American Christians;

    75.

    7) That this limited separation is required not to escape fully from the world (which is neither possible nor desirable for the laity), but so that the laity can be for the world what God wants us to be;

    75.

    8) That Benedict Option Christians should remain politically active, working to preserve their own freedom and for the common good, but should direct most of their efforts to an inward rebuilding of the church and culture within the community, not to attempts to solve our dilemmas by political action;

    95.

    9) That lay Christians should look to the Rule of St. Benedict and the monastic example for inspiration in developing our responses to the situation we find ourselves in;

    60.

    10) That nobody has a Benedict Option fully worked out now, but there are Christians from various traditions who have been working on it for a while, and that the rest of us can learn from their experiences;

    90.

    11) That there won’t be a Benedict Option, but rather Benedict Options, plural, based on a community’s religious traditions and local conditions; that is, there is no one-size-fits-all;

    95.

    12) That the lack of a clear answer to the challenge we face is no excuse to sit back and let history take its course; we are all going to have to do this, or prepare to watch our children and grandchildren assimilated into Borg of relativism, hedonism, consumer capitalism, and the like.

    65.

    To partially quote from Chris’s response: ‘That’s quite optimistic!’

    🙂