The Benedict Option (Book Review)

Judge not a book by its cover

It’s not often that a book aimed at Christians makes such a big splash in mainstream culture.  I’m not talking about the occasional “Purpose Driven Life”  kinda book that makes it to the New York Times best-seller list.  That’s not rare enough to make me blink.  No, what I’m getting at is a book by a conservative Christian, written to address the choir, that gets widely read, discussed (and usually unfairly portrayed) in secular newspapers, journals, and other media outlets.  That’s what happened when blogger, journalist, and author Rod Dreher published The Benedict Option (TBO) back in March 2017.  For his faithful readership at The American Conservative, they had been reading and debating this strategy Dreher calls “The Benedict Option” (or for short: The BenOp) for nearly 10 years.  But the rest of us didn’t have the benefit of that decade-long conversation.  All we had was the book that landed like a bombshell in the wake of the Donald Trump presidential election victory.

Lots and lots has been written about TBO since it first appeared on shelves, and I have no intention of trying to top the excellent reviews out there.  My goal is different and threefold:

  1. Present myself as an honest, informed reader who has not just read the book, but also studied and digested it.  My copy is full of marginal notes recording my dialogue with the author.  I’ve read it three times (once with my wife) so that we could discuss its implications for our church, family, and Christian friends.  And not just the implications, we’ve actually begun to put some of these strategies into practice in our own home.
  2. Summarize the main points of TBO for those who have been subject to the cacophony of noise surrounding the book.  As I mentioned, there are some excellent reviews on the internet, but there is regrettably an (un)fair share of poor reviews to sift through as well.  Not negative reviews per se–I believe thoughtful and honest negative reviews are profitable for everyone.  But hit-piece reviews that seem to come out of left field to anyone who has actually bothered to, you know, READ IT!
  3. Collate and annotate some of the best reviews and discussions about TBO book and the BenOp as a macro-strategy for Christians in these troubled times we live in.

So why, you might ask, is the book so praised and maligned?  In my observation, the book tends (although unintentionally) to function as something like a Rorschach (“inkblot”) test for its readers, particularly its critics.  I’m not sure if people are mostly snap-judging it by its Title (The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation) imposed on the cover image (the Benedictine Monastery in Norsia, Italy).  My wife, who in the end loved the book, judged it negatively by its cover the first time she saw it.  She grew up around hard-core homeschool culture and witnessed several families crack down with serious “Christian discipline” only to lose many of their kids to prodigal rebellion in their teens and early adult years.  So I suspect when TBO gets judged by its cover, spoiling a person’s opinion of the book, it’s because the photograph, the book title, and their own personal baggage collude to create a toxic mix.

As with any book, the Introduction that precedes Chapter 1 presents the main thesis, states the intended audience, and more or less sets the stage for the main body.  TBO does a good job in this respect.  Before I proceeded to the first chapter during my first read-through, these were my “virgin thoughts”, recorded in the margins as I paused to interact with the author, and at the end of the introduction I synthesized them.  I hope such an exercise is helpful and convinces you to read further.  So for what’s it worth…

The book’s thesis tends to be misunderstood by many readers and reviewers, and is probably best interpreted through the author’s more extensive blogs on TBO.  (I’ve read places on his blog where a reader clarifies in the comments what TBO is, and Dreher chimes in “Amen!”  These citations are helpful to dispel common misconceptions about TBO.)  There is a lot of negative criticism and outright rejection of the BenOp as a strategy.  Could it be that TBO is so very different from what conservative Christians have been tried in the modern West?  But if what Christians en masse have been doing hasn’t worked out well at all, doesn’t it stand to reason that it’s time to at least consider trying something new–or rather something very old?  It can’t hurt to ask!  If a biblical and historical case can be made for TBO, why dismiss it out of hand?  The author is a conservative Christian who loves the church.  Even though he is a former Roman Catholic and currently a practicing Eastern Orthodox believer, he describes himself and other traditional-historical conservative Christians as “small-o” orthodox.  He loves the West’s Christian heritage, and believes the culture war in the West is over—Christians are the losers.  Because the church lost this war, Dreher argues it is time to try a new strategy because the old strategy of hoping in national politics didn’t work.  So he proposes something like St. Benedict’s strategy after the societal, cultural, and moral fall of the Roman Empire.  In the book he promises to explore Benedict’s “Rule” as it may apply in our 21st century context.

I won’t bore you with this exercise ten-times over, so please humor me here once more.  Here are my reflections and reactions after reading Chapter 1 which he entitles “The Great Flood”.  The audience of the book and the readership of the book don’t seem to overlap much.  Hopefully this problem rectifies itself as the book filters down to the masses.  Dreher really wants two kinds of conservative Christians to read and be changed: (1) the politically active (or those who believe politics is a major part of the answer), and (2) the happily assimilated clueless.  But these folks are the least inclined to read TBO because it’s off their radar.  The actual readers are those conservative Christians who care a great deal about the cultural and religious problems Dreher accurately diagnoses, but most of these folks are already invested and active in some form of BenOP even though they don’t realize it or call it as such.  Still, the provocative monastery imagery TBO conjures in their minds, and a partial blindness to the problems (“my church and social circles seem to be doing OK compared to the rest”) predispose these folks to reject TBO.  Their problem is they don’t see what they can’t see.  They are not looking deep and broad enough to discern the prevailing trends.  They reject the need for something like TBO because their limited anecdotal experience contradicts what the experts, who are paying attention to the big picture zeitgeist, can see and are sensibly predicting.  To borrow Dreher’s Great Flood analogy, it is as if they say, “My life has not been flooded, and most of my responsible close friends and family are not flooded, so it must be those other irresponsible people’s problem.”  In other words, they see the flood as a local flood over there, not a Great Flood nearly everywhere.  My sense is this is the main reason TBO has been dismissed out of hand by so many readers and reviewers.  Which is awful because such a dismissal belies a fundamentally unchristian attitude.  “And who is my neighbor?”  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  “No way, not the ones over there!”  Dreher is sounding an alarm that our neighbors are being swept away in an iniquitous cultural flood of historic proportion, and we are content to slouch toward Gomorrah because some of us aren’t wet yet.

That’s enough commentary for now.  You get the point.  Let me attempt to accurately summarize TBO chapter by chapter.

Summary of Chapter 1: The Great Flood. Western Christians and churches are not ready for secularism and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’s (MTD) hostile takeover of the culture.  The church in the West and the Christians who inhabit this culture are on the precipice of the end of “a” world.  MTD has colonized the culture and our churches for at least 2 generations now.  It is a counterfeit form of religion.  Culture today is ruled by sophisticated barbarians intent on systematically destroying virtue, order, and religion—especially Christianity.  To survive the next Dark Age upon us and preserve Christian civilization, we can follow the example and Rule of St. Benedict.  Instead of fighting the Flood, we should build “arks” to ride out the storm.  Arks are just manifestations of true, serious, faithful Christianity and Christian counterculture.

Summary of Chapter 2: The Roots of the Crisis.  The present crisis is seven centuries in the making, beginning in the 14th century.  There were five landmark events that led to the present Flood/Crisis.  These landmark events, cited from page 23, are: (1) The loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation; (2) the collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation; (3) the Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy; (4) the Industrial Revolution and the growth of capitalism; and (5) the Sexual Revolution.  In this chapter the author contrasts the medieval and modern mindsets and worldviews.  Medievals had little comfort but much meaning.  Moderns have much comfort but little to no meaning. (Note the average person in the Third World and the First World poor would probably disagree here.)  Dreher has a neutral view of the Protestant Reformation.  From his other writings he doesn’t seem to understand how Protestants possess in their historical tradition the best resources of the Benedictines without some of the Benedictine weaknesses.

Summary of Chapter 3: A Rule for Living.  Lessons from St. Benedict’s Rule are gathered by observing how the monks live the Rule and the benefits it brings to individuals and community.  Something like a community agreed-upon rule is almost necessary to withstand the forces of dissolution of pop culture.  Benedict’s Rule is for the ordinary and weak—it is not legalism but disciplined living.  The Rule is not the gospel but a way to live life obediently in light of the gospel.  The Rule’s teachings are plain enough for adaptation by lay Christians.  Its eight broad domains are (1) Order, (2) Prayer, (3) Work, (4) Asceticism, (5) Stability, (6) Community, (7) Hospitality, and (8) Balance.  The author believes Christians must cooperate with divine grace to receive it.  Is there room here for sovereign, effectual grace?

Summary of Chapter 4: A New Kind of Christian Politics.  The culture war over national values is over.  Conservative Christians lost.  We should follow the advice and example of Havel’s communist dissidents in Poland.  The best political hope today is protecting religious liberty (at the federal and state levels) to make the Benedict Option possible.  Our time is short to strengthen these rights.  In this new cultural reality, Christians must embrace a mindset of strangers in exile in order to build a parallel polis.  Our civilization is dangerously fragile to Christians must rebuild culture by being more “political” in its broad, philosophical sense.  “Living in the truth,” as Havel enjoins us to do, is the power of the politically powerless.  To live like this it is necessary to avoid quietism, ghetto-ism, and consequentialism.  The local strategies will follow the model of the pro-life movement after 1992 when the Supreme Court dealt them a legal setback.  To be more “political” means to be civically/socially active in shoring up God’s kingdom, but not the American Empire.

Summary of Chapter 5: A Church for All Seasons.  This is a strategy for churches.  Retreat/refocus on Christian formation first, then secondly for the sake of the world.  Why?  Because a robust life of the church will renew Christian culture.  The author has six main suggestions for the church to adopt.  (1) Rediscover the past through catechesis and studying the church fathers. (2) Recover liturgical worship to conform the church body to scripture. (3) Relearn asceticism (spiritual disciplines) and stick to them. (4) Tighten church discipline to have softer boundaries than the Christian center.  Employ church covenants, accountability, and excommunication. (5) Evangelize with goodness and beauty that lead to truth. (6) Embrace the theology of the cross (suffering, exile, possible martyrdom) rather than the theology of glory.

Summary of Chapter 6: The Idea of a Christian Village.  The “Ben Op” is synonymous with traditional and biblical Christian living—nothing more and nothing less.  We need to recover the idea of a Christian village.  Make home a family monastery that is loving and countercultural.  Guide your kids to have a good peer group.  But remember to be careful because idolizing family or community will drive your kids away from Christ.  Choose to live close to the church building to maximize opportunities to be involved in community life.  Cultivate relational nearness through the parish/ward model.  Build and maintain bridges and relationships that are an ecumenism of the trenches.  Get started after some planning, but don’t be afraid to fail.  Just keep it going so you don’t let the group die; all ow God to change it at his leading.

Summary of Chapter 7: Education as Christian Formation.  This is one of the most important chapters by the author’s own admission because Christian education is vital to forming the next generation of BenOp Christians.  The author is high on the classical Christian educational model (quest for God as its highest goal; unity of disciplines).  Christian education is the most important tool for our family formation in the faith.  We must teach our kids the scripture and history of Western civilization, to know God and to engage in the Great Conversation.  This is important because Christians need to know who we are and never forget.  Thus Christians must reject public schools (the author later retracted on his blog the rigidity of this statement) and test the viability of traditional Christian schools.  Christian schools do well when they integrate with a church or group of churches.  Christian parents should keep open the option to homeschool according to the classical Christian model.  The author also provides a few strategies for Christian students to survive secular colleges with their faith intact.  One poignant tip for college thriving is living in Christian community under a House Rule to foster accountability, discipline, fellowship, witness, and outreach.

Summary of Chapter 8: Preparing for Hard Labor.  The author’s thesis is that Christians in the not-to-distant future may find themselves in an economy that is hostile to their practice their faith with integrity.  Thus Christians should prepare for hard labor—and this is not such a bad thing!  We must recover the spirituality and practicality of manual labor.  Calling and vocation are not just for ministry because work is received from God as a gift both secular and divine.  Your vocation is related to the larger whole and beyond yourself.  While work orders our world and our hearts at the same time, don’t idolize work—guard against it.  Unfortunately Dreher rejects the “existential” perspective on work as good.  It seems hard for him to admit that work should be satisfying to the worker also, not just the one who receives the byproduct of labor.  The tip of the spear of the coming hardship for Christians in the workforce is the LGBT agenda.  As top companies strive to please LGBT activists, employees will be pressured to “burn a pinch of incense to Caesar” to signal their loyalty to the ideology.  This will expose and weed out orthodox Christians and other dissenters.  Many professions will be vulnerable to being closed to conscientious believers, so pursuing and staying in particular vocations will become a matter of wisdom.  Dreher offers a few principles to aid Christians prepare for the coming storm.  (1) Be prudent and shrewd in your workplace. (2) Be bold for religious freedom and know beforehand where you will draw the line in the sand. (3) Be entrepreneurial by building businesses to hire and shelter Christian workplace refugees. (4) By Christian, even if it costs more. (5) Build Christian employment networks, including para-church ministries and congregational support systems (6) Rediscover the trades by being open to relocating your family to the margins of society to ply a trade and raise your family.  This will be a challenge because of the economic effects of globalization.

Summary of Chapter 9: Eros and the New Christian Counterculture.  This chapter is about a theology and teleology of sex.  Sex is good but its power can be destructive if abused and disordered.  The author avoids Christian moralism (which is not truly Christian anyway!) and focuses instead on the cosmic dimension of sex, including its biblical story as glorious, beautiful, good, true, and countercultural.  Christianity’s sex ethic is historically radical, which is one reason why the Sexual Revolution beginning in the 1960s was the biggest cultural revolution.  The two—Christianity’s sex ethic and the Sexual Revolution—are totally opposed.  Thus Benedict Option Christians must resist the victorious Sexual Revolution because it is swallowing the church—especially our children.  Then the author offers 6 Resistance Principles.  None of these principles are problematic; all are good advice.  (1) Don’t compromise to keep the young. (2) Affirm the goodness of sexuality. (3) Moralism is not enough. (4) Parents must be primary sex educators. (5) Love and support unmarried people in the community. (6) Fight pornography with everything you’ve got.  In terms of the author’s assessment of the cultural war, he views the LGBT celebration as the endpoint of the Sexual Revolution’s victory over the Christian sexual ethic and cosmic story.

Summary of Chapter 10: Man and the Machine. This chapter on technology is perhaps the most radical chapter of all, at least from a practical perspective.  In my experience this is the topic about which most Christians refuse to think critically.  I think this is the case because it would require repentance and hard lifestyle changes for not only our children, but especially for adults.  The author claims we have recently become addicted to the internet through our devices, we can’t even see it, and most of us don’t care!  Chapter thesis: technology is an ideology that conditions how we understand reality.  Our technology trains us in the worldview of liquid modernity.  Contrast the Technological Man’s views and practices with the Christian.  This exercise reveals that Christians are not thinking about technology from a robust biblical worldview.  Our technology is changing us in every way—emotionally, relationally, spiritually, and even neurologically!  Then the author proposes several strategies to break free from our bondage to technology. (1) Digitally fast. (2) No smartphones for kids. (3) No social media in worship. (4) Work with and use your hands. (5) Question what is called progress.  Page 236 includes the book’s main thesis and what the Benedict Option is all about as a call to action.

If Christians today do not stand firm on the rock of sacred order as revealed in our holy tradition—ways of thinking, speaking and acting that incarnate the Christian in culture and pass it on from generation to generation—we will have nothing to stand on at all.  If we don’t take on everyday practices that keep that sacred order present to ourselves, our families, and our communities, we are going to lose it.  And if we lose it, we are at great risk of losing sight of the One to whom everything in that sacred order, like a divine treasure map, points…For us, the greatest danger comes from the liberal secular order itself.  And our failure to understand this reinforces our cultural captivity and the seemingly unstoppable assimilation of the next generation…The Benedict Option is a call to undertaking the long and patient work of reclaiming the real world from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life.  It is a way of seeing the world and of living in the world that undermines modernity’s big lie: that humans are nothing more than ghosts in a machine, and we are free to adjust its settings in any way we like.

Summary of Conclusion: The Benedict Decision.  Love for Christ and neighbor must be the power of a Benedictine spirituality—not fear.  The author sets forth two different images of the church that must be held together: an ark and a wellspring.  Consider the Tipi Loschi community in Italy as the author’s favorite example of people living the Benedict Option.  These are their instructions for Christians who want the kind of life they have been able to cultivate. (1) Get serious about living as Christians. (2) Fight for the good no matter what is happening around you in the world.  (3) “Save the seed” in a season of cultural decline. (4) When you don’t have a horse, a donkey can do good work. (5) Live liturgically, telling the Story of the Christian faith and the great story of the West.  The Benedictine community in Norcia, Italy is an apt parable for rebuilding the ruins amid our crumbling culture.  This concluding chapter is a strong challenge: now that your eyes have been opened to our cultural situation, what are you going to do about it?  What decisions will you make?  What changes will you make?  Who will you bring along with you for the Benedict Option?  In a powerful concluding sentence, the author quotes Christ’s refrain to the seven churches in the biblical book of Revelation: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).

Part jeremiad and part call to action, TBO demands a response.  To read it and agree with it, and yet not to repent and make some hard decisions is to disrespect God, truth and yourself.  That’s why my family has committed, among other things, to:

  1. Renew our conviction and efforts to guard against pornography exposure in our children’s lives.  People in certain professions are privy to insider information relevant to this topic.  As a pastor who had a first career in cyber security, I know from experience that people who have access to the internet from childhood or the early teen years are disproportionately addicted to porn use.  Porn has a terrible effect on not just the mind, but the body and soul as well.  It’s a long-term curse that eats your life like locusts devour everything it their path.  Porn is vice-grip trap.  Let me put it this way.  As a rule, the rising generation is certain to be sexually broken in ways that we haven’t even begun to imagine.  Marriages, families, children, and society’s birthrate will crumble in the wake of this epic plague.  And here’s the worst part: when it seems that everyone is using, it will be normalized, accepted, and eventually celebrated.  So what does this mean for our family?  Smart vigilance and rigorous boundaries with all internet-connected devices–mine too because no one is immune from temptation and sin!
  2. Prevent my church from being spiritually formed by the consumer, entertainment-driven model of Christianity.  For example, at my church we take Christian education seriously.  Our classes for kids and teens are fun and deep.  We don’t use popular curricula, preferring to make the primary strength the doctrinal content.  The adult curriculum is structured as a 5-year plan to disciple our congregation in a variety of domains: Theology, Bible overview, Church history, Apologetics, Evangelism, Spiritual Disciplines, Sermon discussion, etc.  And our worship service is not high tech or glamorous.  We are not trying to be old-fashioned or married to traditionalism, but we spend our time, energy, and resources on expositional preaching, a structured liturgy keyed to a chosen weekly theme of a particular attribute of God, and a dialogical service that invites participation in a covenant renewal service.  It’s meaty on purpose.  But the reverence, holiness, and joy is palpable.
  3. Regular family worship and discipleship.  This means Bible devotions and discussions at the meal table led by dad or mom.  It means singing and praying together.  It means regular mid-week fellowship with a small group of Christians in our church, even if we have to skip after-school activities.  It means observing Sabbath worship and rest, and not treating Sunday morning as the Lord’s hour, but all of Sunday as the Lord’s Day–a day reserved for worship, rest, abstaining from our regular work and recreation, and showing mercy to our neighbors.  History and research shows that weekly church attendance coupled with Christian discipleship in the home is absolutely the best way to path the faith onto the next generation.  We’re going to do our best to put our family in the path of God’s means of grace.
  4. Parental sex education for our kids that first teaches and demonstrates the beauty of man-woman marriage, and second that warns of the dangers of disobeying God’s good laws of sexuality for us.  There are many good written and multimedia resources for this, and the catalogue is growing every year because Christians are waking up to the disaster that is our kids sexual convictions and behavior.  In other words, we have a plan to catechize our kids so they know the truth, goodness, and beauty of sex, and they understand the very real but often ignored consequences of disordered sex.
  5. Renew our conviction for and commitment to Christian education.  In the younger years when we homeschooled all our kids, this was much easier.  But as they got older and it became more difficult for them to flourish in their schoolwork and socially, we tried the local public schools.  In our minds it was the only option for us since we couldn’t afford private school on a pastor’s salary.  But after nearly 2 years in public schools, the mixed results were overall inadequate to meet our educational and discipleship goals for our family.  And so now my wife is venturing into a home-based business (with a great amount of help from her sister) to make Christian private school a sustainable possibility for us.  That doesn’t mean we are completely out of the public schools yet.  Financial feasibility is the determining factor.  But we now have an acceptable (exciting for us!) private school plan we have begun to implement.  (Please don’t judge us as extreme public school haters.  We appreciate the Elementary school and believe they are doing great work.  But even our public schooling friends are shocked at our many bad experiences in our Middle and High schools.)

There is much more to say, but the value in TBO is for you to read it in community and then make decisions in community because we’re all in this together.  It takes a Christian village to raise a Christian.  The strategies Dreher proposes for Christians to weather the cultural and moral storm that is already forming on the horizon may not be the ones you will implement.  And you may disagree with his prophetic stance on the new normal he is certain will come and remain for a looong time.  But to dismiss his citation of statistics, use of peer-reviewed sociological research, and collection of anecdotal stories is foolishness.  This author has something important and urgent to say.  I urge you to find a small group of Christians (preferably some leaders) in your church to form a book discussion and wrestle with The Benedict Option.

Below is an extensive annotated list of linked resources and reviews associated with TBO and the BenOp.  I hope and pray they assist you in understanding and implementing some BenOp strategies in your life, your family, your church, and even in your network of Christian friends.

Resources

Dreher’s blog posts on the BenOp and Weimar America

A positive testimony to the value of the BenOp after having lived it, by Cheryl Magness (Dreher agrees with her assessment of TBO)

On Misreading TBO, by Rod Dreher

On Understanding TBO, by Rod Dreher

A Tale of Two Photos, by Rod Dreher (contemplates how TBO will have to be Christian, not Stoic, and inner transformation rather than merely outer forms restoration)

Alasdair MacIntyre Is Ben Op & Doesn’t Know It, by Rod Dreher

What Are We Conserving?, by Rod Dreher

What is the BenOp for?, by Rod Dreher

Maritain and TBO, by Rod Dreher

Perversion as Progress, by Rod Dreher

Twilight of the Elites—And the Rest of Us, by Rod Dreher

Head Not for the Hills, Brethren, by Rod Dreher

There is No Plan B, by Rod Dreher

On Not Heading for the Hills, by Rod Dreher

Hope Amid the Ruins, by Rod Dreher

How Then Should We Live Today? by Rod Dreher

The West Hates Children, Doesn’t It? by Rod Dreher

St. Benedict vs. Dreher’s ‘St. Benedict’, by Rod Dreher

“Dunkirk” as Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher

Collapse of the Religious Canopy, by Rod Dreher

How Christianity Can Ride the Tiger, by Rod Dreher

Mysticism and the Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher

What’s Benedictine about Dreher? by Scot McKnight

TBO: A Sweep of History, by Scot McKnight

Polis/Counter-polis: On the Civic Benedict Option, by Susannah Black

Conversations with Rod Dreher, by Law and Religion Forum

Eating Locusts Will Be (Benedict) Optional, by Carl Trueman

What’s Really At Stake, by Rod Dreher

Reviews

Blog and Mablog (Reformed; generally positive): Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9

Catholic World Report (Roman Catholic; positive)

Clay Testament (progressive Christian; positive)

The Cripplegate (baptistic; negative).  When will using “gospel” as an adjective jump the shark?  Three problems with TBO. Take 1, Take 2

Dappled Things (Roman Catholic; positive)

The Imaginative Conservative (positive): Take 1, Take 2

The Josias (Roman Catholic; positive)

The Federalist (Reformed; negative)

L. John Van Til (Reformed; positive)

Mere Orthodoxy (Reformed; positive and thorough)

National Review (conservative; negative)

Reformed Faith and Practice (Reformed; positive)

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Book Review, Worldview and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s