Discernment and “The Benedict Option”

Hearts & Minds Review: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

I recently posted a link to Christianity Today Online’s forum of responses to Dreher’s March cover article in Christianity Today, which put forward “strategic withdrawal” from culture as the way forward for American Christianity. The above link is another thoughtful response, this time with respect to Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, on which his article is presumably based. (The author of the review, Byron Borger, is also the owner of a lovely bookstore called Hearts & Minds, from which I order all of my theology/faith/culture-oriented books, and it is largely due to their columns and newsletters that I hear of many of these books in the first place.) The review is long, so I will briefly sum it up here. I do encourage you to read the whole thing, regardless of your interest in Dreher’s book, because it is really a great reflection on the church’s role in the world, and it includes many great recommendations for other books about the various topics touched on in the review.

Borger discusses six main points about Dreher’s book:

  1. The book clearly reflects the influence of St. Benedict of Nursia, who formed spiritual communities in the period after the Roman Empire.
  2. The modern day call for a new kind of Benedict originates not with Dreher, but with Alasdair MacIntyre, in his After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology, and Dreher’s concerns with the breakdowns in modern society acknowledge that they go much further back than any recent legislative or cultural movements, although perhaps Dreher does not go back quite far enough.
  3. Dreher is well-read and references many great authors, which gives the book a strong foundation for its critique of “modern progressive impulses.”
  4. Dreher’s earlier book, Crunchy Cons, sought to critique conservatism from within, drawing on the likes of Wendell Berry to advocate for more local, more green, more other-oriented conservatism. The Benedict Option also quotes Berry, but Dreher is selective, emphasizing Berry’s views on materialism, family stability, traditional sexual ethics, and conservation, but drawing no attention to his critiques of nationalism, violence, etc.
  5. The book may not be adequately clear on how bad things are or how much Dreher thinks we need to retreat; Dreher has responded to published criticism by clarifying that “he does not counsel a full resistance or a complete withdrawal.”
  6. There is much you may be ambivalent about in the book–he probably overstates what we should be alarmed about and how alarmed we should be.
  7. There is much to wisely consider in the book–worship and the church, prayer and community, spiritual practices that cultivate the interior life, all of these are deeply important, formative, and may indeed be increasingly important as the civilization around us becomes increasingly disconnected from “Christian-inspired” principles.

Borger ends the review with a lovely apologia for a resurrection-oriented, culture-shaping role for the church, from which these few quotes are drawn:

There is little doubt that Dreher is right that many churches these days don’t really help us live into the sort of holiness to which we are called.

But the same Bible also holds out a vision of the renewal of all things. Everything.   The Bible tells us to go into the world; it just does. There is no escaping the missional call to serve our neighbors, the public sphere, working “in but not of” the society around us…

Work, family, politics, art, learning — it’s all gift, it’s all service, even in … a state of exile. Our church liturgy anticipates the final restoration of things…. As such, good liturgy … is hopeful. We hear good news each week and practice ways of embodying such hope, even in exile.  I think Rod [Dreher] should worry less about Supreme Court rulings and listen better, week after week, to that great liturgical refrain:  He Is Risen.  He is Risen Indeed.

Culture: Retreat or Renew?

Is It Time for Evangelicals to Withdraw from the Culture?

This series of articles on Christianity Today offers four responses to Rob Dreher’s article–The Benedict Option’s Vision for a Christian Village–in which Dreher calls for a tactical, circling-the-wagons approach to dealing with the evangelical church’s inability to be a powerful counterforce to both the decline of virtue and the over-enthusiasm for the market present in various segments of our culture today:

The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation….  If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in deed. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

While there is much to be taken note of here–Christianity should be a way of life, and Christian community should be more than a social club, instead encouraging and growing us theologically and spiritually–these responses detail various reasons why retreat from culture, even for the good reasons of developing community and intentional spiritual practice, is perhaps not what we are called to:

The church is made who it is by being the church in the world. The church’s primary reason for being is to be in and among (but not of) the world (John 17:14–15)…. We cannot, therefore, extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are. The church does not have a mission. It is mission.

~ The Benedict Option’s False Dichotomy, David Fitch

Too often, our well-intended efforts to deepen Christian community leave us with people who look just like us, perpetuating divisions in the church over race, politics, and class. But the church of every tribe, tongue, and nation—and the church of every tax bracket, political party, and musical taste—requires more. Christians are called to overcome these barriers, for the sake of the church and the sake of the world.

~ The Benedict Option Falls Short of Real Pluralism, John Inazu

Robust theology will yield robust communities…. God’s story from Creation to Revelation is of a Covenant God empowering his beloved to persevere through hostility leveled specifically against them. The New Testament tells the beautiful story of persevering community, faith, and creativity in the context of cultural adversity…. [It] provides a model of persevering faith, creativity, and community. Anyone seeking a more dynamic, transformational, risk-taking church in America will humbly learn from both global and local leaders who are living its reality.

~ The Benedict Option’s Blind Spots, Karen Ellis

As counterintuitive as it sounds, evangelicals strengthen their local Christian communities by recovering a sense of responsibility for the larger communities in which we exist. It is the Great Commission that corrects the effects of secular individualism, actively confronting our consumerism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and classicism. It is the Great Commission that gives us a reason to exist beyond the solipsism of our own hearts.

~ The Benedict Option Isn’t an Evangelical Option, Hannah Anderson