Why 'The Benedict Option' is not an option for Christians
There has been quite a buzz about Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option. It's sold a lot of copies already. In the UK the Spectator magazine did a feature on the book. In the USA, Christianity Today did a multi-page spread and the legendary New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed about it. This book has received (mostly) critical acclaim.
Rod Dreher is an American conservative Christian who has written a clarion call to the Church with a radical response to the prevailing western culture. Dreher is very concerned about the health of the American Church. He seems to have a point. He helpfully points out a number of worrying indicators of the Church's health.
First, he reveals a sub-biblical understanding of the gospel by many young people (and adults too, in my opinion) who call themselves Christians. Dreher relies heavily here on the analysis of Christian Arnold and Kenda Creasey Dean and their empirical research into the faith understanding of thousands of US teenagers and young adults.
Their work exposed the strange cocktail of almost-but-not-quite Christian beliefs held by church-going teenagers, which has become known as 'Therapeutic Moralistic Deism'. Dreher argues that this understanding of the gospel means we should be sceptical about the large number of people who still go to church in the USA.
I have great respect for Arnold and Creasey Dean's work and indeed there is a real problem with the faith understanding of many young people not just in America but across the world. However I would argue that these beliefs and (mis)understandings have often been transmitted by an older generation and so the problems may well lie deeper.
Second, he highlights the almost completely ineffective Christian engagement with politics. Dreher argues that the Church has failed to find a way of articulating its faith and values in a way that makes sense to the wider culture. In his words, 'The public square has been lost.' Even in post-Trump America, Dreher believes: Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation's government., Dreher is outspoken in his critique of many US Christians who see Trump as a moral saviour and forcefully writes that 'the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional'. Dreher is very critical of a lot of Christian engagement with politics in the USA and I think he has a good point here. Too often, our political engagement has been too self-serving, too reactionary, too focused around single issues and less about 'seeking the welfare of the city' (Jeremiah 29:7).
Third, Dreher senses a rising flood of secularism. He argues that 'American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture... in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense.' This is exactly right. For many people the Christian faith makes little sense; we speak a different language and too much of our apologetic work is aimed at helping Christians feel more comfortable in their beliefs instead of explaining in a winsome and gracious way why the Christian faith can make sense of our world and make sense to our culture.
So in a large part I agree with Dreher's analysis that we have a problem. I believe we do have a discipleship crisis. I often quote Bishop Graham Cray, who has noted that our culture is doing a better job of discipling Christians than the Church. As believers it often seems we are shaped more by the secularising effects of our culture than the sanctifying effects of the Spirit, scripture, sacraments and serving the poor. Dreher offers a flood warning and urges the Church to do something before it is too late.
While I can sympathise with some of Dreher's analysis about the ill health of the Church, I would pick different indicators for spiritual vitality. Dreher seems almost exclusively fixated on views around sex. Where is his concern about Christian attitudes and actions on behalf of the poor? What about Christian responses to vulnerable children? What about our mandate to articulate 'the reason for the hope that we have'? Where is his challenge for Christian generosity and sacrificial service? These concerns are almost completely absent in Dreher's analysis of the Church, so I'm sceptical when it comes to his strategy for reviving it.
Dreher's solution to the problems he sees for the Church in North America draws on the life of a 5th century monk called St Benedict of Nursia. Benedict set up a monastic order which was shaped by a rule of life. Dreher calls the Church to follow Benedict's footsteps through the setting up of a new social order that will counteract the toxic effect of the prevailing culture.
I found a couple of helpful ideas in Dreher's book, but it was hard work because of Dreher's witheringly pessimistic tone and his isolationistic vision.
1. How Christian is the book?
Dreher's intention is the survival of conservative Christianity in North America. I wonder how different this book would be it if had been written by some of the other culturally conservative groups he mentions: Jewish, or Mormon, for example. Dreher does not present a Christian vision. He has very little to say about Jesus. There's almost no engagement with the Bible and he is not interested in theology. Instead he has borrowed some of the social practices of St Benedict, some ideas from Vaclav Havel, some others from the Mormons, and reinterpreted them to show how Christians can build a subculture. I am not sure how Christian this is because it makes so little reference to Jesus and his purposes in the world.
2. Where does faith fit into the book's vision?
There is an overwhelmingly pessimistic tone. There is almost no mention of courageous faith in God. For example: 'Benedict Option politics begins with recognition that Western society is post-Christian and that absent a miracle, there is no hope of reversing this condition in the foreseeable future.' Imagine if the first apostles thought like that. As Jesus sent a tiny majority to reach the world for Christ, imagine they had thought that since there was no hope of reversing the paganisation of the world, they should just hide out and wait for the end of the world. For a start there would have been no Benedict and therefore no Benedict option.
3. How will those outside the church interpret this posture?
Dreher's approach feels a little like an apocalyptic cult that encourages its people to store up supplies and go and live in a bunker. Its true I have been simultaneously watching the hit comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt depicting the 'Mole Women' who were held captive by a cult leader and cut off from the wider world. The show plays into every progressive critique of religion – that it is isolationist, abusive, male-dominated and exploitative. Dreher is not advocating this, of course – but as I read his book I wondered how my atheist friends would interpret what he is saying. I think they might see this as on the same trajectory as those apocalyptic cults. By encouraging Christians to reduce their contact with the outside world, how do we expect the world to be changed? This book will just confirm their fears that the Church is judgmental and hypocritical with a holier-than-thou view of the rest of society.
4. What does the book assume about our children?
Dreher and his wife were planning to homeschool their children, but felt that was not enough when it came to protecting them. He notes: 'When your child leaves home to go and play with the neighbourhood kids, you have to be able to trust that the values in your home are not undermined by the company he keeps.' Dreher goes on to argue that we should be suspicious of sending our children not just to secular schools but even to a lot of Christian schools.
People I know, love and respect have decided to homeschool their children for a variety of reasons. I have nothing against home education per se. However, the challenge for parents who homeschool is how we help children to have rich and deep and real friendships, including with those outside our faith communities. Even those of us who educate our children using mainstream schools face the challenge of how we foster a breadth of relationships as well as how we deepen and enrich their discipleship. Dreher is not just an advocate of homeschooling, he is also very critical of those who don't homeschool their children. He goes so far as to describing parents who send their children to mainstream school in order that they would be salt and light as 'a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she'll save another drowning child'. I struggle with Dreher's tone and his straw-manning of people who take a different view to his. Dreher assumes that our children flourish best by being protected and mollycoddled. Personally I believe our children flourish best when they see their families live courageously for God in the world today.
5. Where is mission?
It's interesting that Dreher's engagement with the Bible is so minimal. His reference to the Bible's concept of salt and light is utilised only as part of a criticism of non-homeschoolers. He doesn't seem to have much time for Jesus, either, which for me is the main problem. If Dreher tracked Jesus he would have tempered his language and challenged his isolationism. Jesus managed the balance of being holy and yet engaging with the world. He was the purest person that has ever lived and yet he was a friend of sinners. Jesus sent his disciples out into the world as sheep amongst wolves, not as rabbits to their warren. The great commission to disciple the nations and the great commandment to love our neighbours are almost completely ignored in Dreher's vision for the church.
There is much to learn from the monastic mission of the Middle Ages. As David Bosch, the great South African missiologist, observes: 'Monasticism saved the medieval Church from acquiesence, petrification and the loss of its vision and truly revolutionary character.' There seems little interaction with the New Monasticism of the 1990s, either. I didn't see engagement with Shane Claiborne or the missional communities or the base ecclesial communities of South America. It feels instead as if Dreher has commandeered a few of St Benedict's ideas, added a dash of the ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre and then loaded up on homeschool rhetoric and moral majority scaremongering.
I was frustrated by this book. I was hoping it would deliver on its promising subtitle, 'A strategy for Christians in a Post Christian Nation'. Instead, just as he seems to recommend to others, Dreher has locked himself in an isolationist bunker while he awaits either the rapture or the apocalypse. We do need to figure out a more effective discipleship strategy for a post-Christian context, but Dreher's is not the way we will do so.
Dr Krish Kandiah is the founding Director of Home for Good. His latest book, 'God is Stranger', is published by Hodder.