A Feature Review of
The Benedict Option:
A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
For over a decade, Rod Dreher has been observing and commenting on the demise of Western culture, and sketching the basic ideas that he presents in his new book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (which releases today). His account of the deep fragmentation and crumbling of Western culture, and especially the devastation that flows from our uncritical submission to the economic forces of market capitalism, is one that many social critics across the ideological spectrum have explored over the last century, from Russell Kirk to Wendell Berry to Robert Putnam to Noam Chomsky. The title of Dreher’s book is appropriated from the final pages of Alasdair MacIntyre’s prescient book After Virtue (originally published in 1981), in which MacIntyre suggests that the inevitable end of the crumbling of Western culture will be a sort of “dark age,” in which civilization would only be preserved by communities that function in a similar way to those of the Benedictine monasteries that preserved much of Western culture through the dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. I agree with MacIntyre and Dreher that in our age of prevailing individualism, we need to find ways of cultivating community that stand in sharp contrast to the manifold fragmentation of the dominant culture.
Over the last two decades, I have lived the vast majority of my post-collegiate life in Christian communities that are inspired to a certain degree by Benedictine monasticism and that strive to share life together in intentional ways and to be communities that stand in contrast to the fragmenting violence of Western culture. Given this history, I find there is much in The Benedict Option that resonates with me. In fact, in my recent book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (co-written with John Pattison) traces a similar history of the fragmentation of Western Culture, and in a practical vein recommends tight-knit, Christian communities as essential to imagining and embodying an alternative to the fragmentation of our age.
Dreher is to be commended not only for many of his insightful economic and cultural critiques, but also because he is asking many timely questions about identity, theology, community, and political faithfulness that churches should be wrestling with today.
I agree with Dreher that to turn the tide of fragmentation, we need communities whose common life runs deeper than a single, weekly meeting, and where we are relearning what it means to belong to a people and a place. “[The] church can’t just be the place you on Sundays,” Dreher writes, “it must become the center of your life.” These communities will require us to work through questions of family life, vocation, education, technology, to each of which Dreher devotes a chapter in this book. These questions are questions that all real communities must wrestle with, and indeed are ones that many communities that are merely religious in nature are tempted to skirt.
Despite my appreciation of Dreher’s economic critiques and the timely questions that he poses, I have some deep theological and philosophical differences with The Benedict Option. Essential to Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of a tradition is a commitment to a particular community, and to the narrative that defines that community (and by which that community interprets all other communities/narratives). And so, from the initial page of the book, in which Dreher emphasizes that “the most important institution to conserve” is the family – and not the people of God (or the church) – I have to wonder if, despite his repeated deference to scriptural authority, if Dreher is working from some narrative other than that of scripture? The primary institution (and the primary community) at the heart of the scriptural tradition – in both the Hebrew scripture and the New Testament – is not the family, but the people of God. Dreher rarely speaks in unqualified terms of the Christian tradition, but rather prefers to add qualifiers: “conservative Christianity,” “orthodox Christianity” (small o), or “traditional Christianity.” This incessant qualification serves to propagate further the sorts of fragmentation that Dreher recognizes as indicative of our age. So my question for Dreher is: What is the primary community/tradition with which you identify yourself? Conservativism? Conservative Christianity? Or Christianity (period). If one of the former two of these options, I can recognize many insightful ideas in this book, but ultimately you and I are working from different traditions and thus incompatible frameworks for interpreting the world. Additionally, either of these first two traditions (as would their mirror images in the ideology of Left) because they are defined in opposition to the Other, only add further layers of fragmentation to those that you rightly attribute to the forces of modernity. However, if the primary tradition with which you identify is Christianity, whose primary, scriptural narrative is not defined over and against an Other, but rather is constituted by a God who not only created all humanity and who is sovereign over human history, but who also is engaged in the slow and patient work of reconciling all humanity (see, for instance, Col. 1), then we share this tradition in common.
If Dreher does identify primarily with the tradition of Christianity, I am concerned by his seeming implication that Benedict Option communities will be largely homogeneous in their convictions and perspective on the world (i.e., conservative/orthodox/traditional). I have argued that the sort of communities that will sustain the life of God’s people in the future, are not communities that are set apart from churches (as the monastic communities traditionally have been, and as many of the new monastic communities are today), but rather our church communities in all their diversity and all their messiness. It was ordinary churches full of ordinary people in all their diversity (ethnic diversity as well as the deep Jew/Gentile divide) that the Apostles planted throughout the Mediterranean region in the first century. Although it might seemingly be more efficient to gather new communities of likeminded folks to pursue a Benedict Option way of life, this cloistering of likeminded people will continue to propagate the fragmentation of modernity (and the fragmentation of the church). Our ability to offer a contrast to the fragmenting ways of modernity hinges on our capacity to sort through differences of conviction, formation, and practice. If we claim the tradition of Christianity, as I believe we should, our future is bound up with all who have devoted their lives to communities rooted in this tradition (short of something on the scale of the Councils of the Early Church that would definitively identify certain convictions or practices as not Christian). Our lives are especially bound up with those in our local church communities regardless of other ethnic or sociopolitical identities that might be essential to our formation. Even the seemingly most homogeneous of congregations contain within themselves diversities of age, economics, vocation, education, to name just a few. I’ve been fortunate over the last decade to work with a wide swath of churches across North America, and my experience has been that in almost all of these churches and regardless of the church’s official stance on sexuality and gender (to name just one particularly volatile issue), there will be some members of that congregation who do not share the church’s official convictions on that matter. We cannot continue to wield scriptural authority as a sword that lops off others who do not agree with us. We have to be willing to hear those who do not agree with us, and in conversation and faithful presence with one another, discern together how we will live faithfully to the tradition we have inherited.
Indeed, the scriptural tradition emphasizes that the people of God are a singular whole, and that God is sovereign, even in the midst of our disagreements and clashing. Indeed, the bulk of the Apostle Paul’s epistles are focused on the deep cultural divides between Jews and Gentiles, and yet he is emphatic that Jews and Gentiles have been united in Christ, and as such are compelled to work through their pressing cultural divides. Some of the wisest words and most salient words that Dreher offers about the present challenges around sexuality come near the end of the book: “The angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity is rooted in large part in the cultural memory of rejection and hatred by the church. Christians need to own up to our past in this regard and to repent of it.” If we took these convictions as a starting point, along with a deep sense that – regardless of the sociopolitical convictions we bring to the table – it is possible that we might be wrong on some things, we might find ourselves on a different trajectory than the sort of rigid adherence to tradition which seems to dominate Dreher’s book. We might even be able to imagine our unity in a singular, unqualified Christian tradition.
Dreher is an insightful thinker, and the ideas of this book have been brewing in his mind and in conversations with a wide-reaching cast of others for the better part of a decade (and maybe longer). The vision that he offers in The Benedict Option is much more nuanced than many early critics of the book recognize. I appreciate the personal narratives that Dreher interweaves in the book, as they reveal the many ways that he is learning and growing and being transformed. I’ve wrestled with this book like I have very few others over the last decade. The vast majority of the historical analysis in this book, as well as Dreher’s intuitions about what will be needed to preserve Christian identity are well-reasoned and beg for careful reading and discussion. I wish this book could be read and discussed broadly, but Dreher’s occasional adopting of the shrill tones of a culture warrior (which in reality is a fairly small portion of the book, but recurs spottily throughout almost all the book’s chapters), will impede the reception of his rich, practical wisdom in this volume with many readers (not only those on the Left, but also many of those who do not neatly fit the categories of Right or Left, but simply idenitfy primarily as Christians).
C. Christopher Smith is the Editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and co-author with John Pattison of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (IVP Books, 2014). His most recent book is Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books, 2016).