I was a little mystified, having finished reading The Benedict Option (TBO), to discover not only that the book turns out to be in many respects an elaborate – albeit well-intentioned and probably evangelically useful – practical joke, but also that so few seem to have noticed that author Rod Dreher himself admits as much about halfway through, and cheerfully gives up the punchline.
Here is Dreher, towards the end of Chapter 6, quoting Catholic blogger Leah Libresco, a devotee of TBO who has been busy organizing Benedict Option events in D.C.:
“People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!’” Libresco told me. “But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.”
Merriam-Webster defines koan thusly: “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.” Presumably, Libresco did not intend the word in its most literal sense. What she meant is, there’s something of the paradox, the joke, behind The Benedict Option.
And the joke is this: the Benedict Option isn’t. An option, I mean. No more than being a Christian is, for the simple reason that they’re very nearly the same thing.
Some of the controversy that has greeted the publication of TBO is, I think, Dreher’s own fault: a consequence of his own aptitude for marketing his ideas and turning them into a movement, a la “Crunchy Cons.” Coin a new term and call it a movement, and one might be forgiven for expecting something new and radical, and therefore threatening. But, as Libresco suggests, there is little that is new in TBO, and if the book is radical, it’s largely with the radicalness of the Gospel. One blogger has boiled Dreher’s book down into 43 concrete proposals, and, with one or two possible exceptions, the final product reads more akin to Practical Christian Living 101, than Rod Dreher’s Guide to How to Flee the Coming Apocalypse.
The endemic misinterpretations of TBO, I believe, originate in the first chapter, in which, having surveyed the cultural wreckage, proclaimed the Culture Wars effectively lost, and declared many political battles to be practically unwinnable in the immediate future, Dreher queries: “Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to … stop fighting the flood?” The tone in which the question is asked, and the proposal immediately following – that Christians consider building “an ark” – suggest that Dreher himself answers resoundingly in the affirmative.
Many of his critics on the Christian right, I think, stop reading there. To willfully cede the public square and hunker down into some new breed of concrete-walled, isolated, pre-apocalyptic Christian communes – that sounds suicidal. Besides, surely we’ve learned by now that these kinds of fear-based, purity-obsessed communities have a tendency to disintegrate into chaotic infighting, occasionally with the mugshots of the community’s “spiritual leaders” gracing the front page of the local newspaper.
And if that were what Dreher were proposing, that might be a fair criticism. But those who read TBO (and I’m not convinced that many of Dreher’s most vociferous critics have) may be surprised that his idea of building an “ark” is much more likely to take the form, for instance, of a group of co-religious D.C.-dwelling suburbanites organizing a regular Christian book study at a local pub, or strengthening the Newman House on the campus of their local state university, than buying up a plot of land in remotest North Dakota, going off-grid, and bidding sayonara to the corrupt pagans of the New Rome.
Indeed, Dreher would have stern words for the progenitors of the latter project. “A community so rigid that it cannot bend will break itself of its members,” Dreher warns those so carried away by enthusiasm as to make an idol of the community. “Communities that are wrapped too tight for fear of impurity will suffocate their members and strangle the joy out of life together. Ideology is the enemy of joyful community life, and the most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is possible.”
Good advice, that.
So if not heading for the hills what, precisely, is Dreher proposing? Well, admittedly in some cases, heading for the hills: as in the small agrarian community that has grown up around the traditional Benedictine monastery in Clear Creek, Oklahoma. Dreher profiles the community in TBO, and approves. And why not, if that’s what you’re called to? But in a lot of cases, what Dreher is proposing seems to be less radical, and more organic. And in all cases, such as the Tipi Loschi community in Italy, he is careful to emphasize that TBO is much more about preserving and cultivating something good, than fleeing something evil.
Here is Dreher summarizing what he calls the “antipolitical politics” of the Benedict Option:
Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department.
This is hardly terrifying stuff. One might even call it positively pedestrian. Most of Dreher’s other proposals are in a similar vein: rediscover traditional liturgical worship; revivify Christian ascetical practices such as regular fasting; consider homeschooling if your local school isn’t up to snuff; evangelize through the arts; take care to provide your children with good Christian friends; strive to live close to, and get personally involved in, your parish; strengthen your church’s support structures; renew your connection with the land; develop an appreciation of work as “vocation”; affirm the goodness of sexuality; reduce your media consumption.
Perhaps the most striking thing about TBO on the whole is how little, after the first chapter or so, Dreher talks about the sole differentiating factor that justifies his “Benedict Option” coinage – i.e. building intentional Christian communities. Those looking for a “how-to” guide to creating a Christian commune will have to look elsewhere. Instead, in general, he focuses his efforts on reminding Christians who they are and what they believe, and encouraging them to get serious about living their faith. The thinking seems to be: do this, and “Benedict Option” communities will arise of their own accord.
Here’s the thing that some of Dreher’s critics are apt to ignore: Conscientious separation from the mainstream (“the world”) has always been an inescapable element of Christian spirituality. Live as a committed Christian, and de facto you will begin to stand apart from others, and never more than in our radically secularist age. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong. You will also, inevitably, gravitate towards your co-religionists. And not because of an exclusionary elitism, but for any number of perfectly healthy reasons: the need for communal worship, for mutually enriching friendships built upon shared convictions, to encourage one another in the arduous battle for holiness, to name a few. A solitary Christian is an impoverished Christian, and a vulnerable one.
Historic Christianity offers a cornucopia of various “spiritualities” that, upon closer examination, turn out to be nothing more than the Gospel message with slight adjustments in emphasis as a response to specific historical exigencies. Such, I would suggest, is The Benedict Option. To be a practicing Christian is, inevitably, to live as part of intentional Christian community. In response to the atomization of modern life and the growing threats to Christian identity, Dreher has simply placed the emphasis on the word “intentional.”
In early Rome, Christians were forced to risk everything to congregate together, often celebrating furtive masses in the dank catacombs. In medieval Europe, however, daily life was so intimately structured around Christian worship, and Christian doctrine so universally accepted, that the sense of “otherness,” even for committed believers, would have been dramatically reduced. The original “Benedict Option” had reached its full flowering, and every medieval town, frequently constructed around a monastery, amounted to a astonishingly vital Benedict Option community.
Dreher’s belief is that Christians today find themselves in circumstances more akin to the early Christians in Rome than to our medieval forebears. Urbanism, a frenetic commodity-based economy that brings in its wake radical instability and rampant materialism, the near-total triumph of the sexual revolution, and the catastrophic collapse of the churches amid doctrinal retreat and scandals: all of these have left many orthodox Christians besieged and isolated.
Unfortunately, in our egalitarian-obsessed society, the suggestion that Christians “stick together” so as to maintain some higher moral standard can strike us as elitist, paranoid, and possibly a rejection of Christ’s evangelical imperative (“Go out to all the world and preach the good news”). Elitism is certainly a risk, and the way to combat that is by nurturing humility grounded in a healthy sense of humor: something I think Dreher gets. But the greater risks at the moment are clearly fragmentation and isolation. These in turn sap Christians’ vital energy, rendering us far less effective as evangelists. It is not elitist to acknowledge that Christianity is a higher standard. Nor can we afford to lose sight of the reality that, rather than any specific political or apologetical initiative, it has always been the personal lived example of Christians adhering to that standard that has effected conversion.
Many of the criticisms of Dreher appear to arise from a failure to read the signs of the times, or of an excessive confidence in ordinary Christians’ capacity to withstand growing external pressure to conform. Consider, for instance, the protests against Dreher’s near-categorical advice to Christian parents to withdraw their children from public schools. Perhaps Dreher was too absolute. Perhaps he ought to have given some allowance for the wide divergence in the quality of public schools. I don’t know. But I do know that those who respond that it is necessary for Christian children to remain in public schools so as to act as “salt and light” to their non-Christian peers are displaying a potentially disastrous naiveté. Either they happen to have unusually saintly children, or they are grossly underestimating the challenges an isolated Christian teen faces in staying faithful in the midst of overwhelming peer pressure.
Those who fear that Dreher’s is a cowardly, defeatist, unevangelical project must consider the conclusion to TBO. There, he modifies his “ark” imagery, which he acknowledges can be misinterpreted. This image he counterbalances with one drawn from Ezekiel’s vision of Jerusalem, with a stream of life-giving water rushing from the altar of the temple, spreading out across the world.
The church, then, is both Ark and Wellspring – and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But He also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the water of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of His grace. You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously.
It is worth remembering that Christ himself spent thirty years separate from the world within that most intimate Benedict Option community – the Holy Family – growing in wisdom and stature. Then he opened the floodgates, and his teachings burst forth upon the world. We moderns in the West are all infected to some degree with an Americanist mentality – believing it our duty to change the world through our own frenetic activity. TBO, while perhaps not perfect, offers a necessary corrective, reminding us that our strength and power derive ultimately from union with Christ, and with one another. Contemplation precedes action. That is the powerful symbolism of the bustling medieval town, with the Benedictine abbey at its center.
It may be that I have understated the nature of Dreher’s project, or glossed over particular proposals that are not merely coextensive with the Gospel. I can perhaps understand the dismay, for instance, with which some activist types view Dreher’s take on politics. But those who persist in caricaturing his arguments by claiming that he is advocating political capitulation must, for honesty’s sake, contend with his numerous qualifications, both in the book and elsewhere. Writes Dreher on his blog just this week: “I do not call for a withdrawal from politics as usual, but … a recalibration of our idea of politics, such that we redirect our attention to the kind of politics that matters most.”
And finally, to those who ridicule Dreher’s belief that TBO is needed to weather the looming stormclouds of Christian persecution, which in many cases will be advanced through the vehicle of what they derisively call The Gay Agenda, I suppose all I can say is: open your eyes.