Reinventing the Wheel, Again? : a review of Rod Dreher's "The Benedict Option"
(Opinions expressed herein belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Fides Quaerens, its editors, or any associated organization.)
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
By Rod Dreher. Sentinel, 262 pages, $25.00
Hear me out: wheels are great; I entrust my bodily wellbeing to at least four wheels every day. When it comes to the material causes of human progress, I would place the wheel right among the printing press, internal combustion engine, and genetically modified corn; but, as the saying goes, there is no need to reinvent said wheel.
My concern is that Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, even if not actually reinventing the wheel of Christian witness, gives a sufficient impression of such an aim and threatens to discredit the tremendous merit of Dreher’s project. While making an, arguably, strong and robust sales pitch for basic christian faithfulness, The Benedict Option embraces a narrative that is, at best, misleading.
Coming as no surprise to readers of his blog at The American Conservative, Dreher’s writing is excellent and captivating. Some passages might, however, strike said blog-readers with deja vu; The Benedict Option is, afterall, the culmination of over a decade’s writing. The book’s skillful balance of anecdotal quotations and statistical research is exactly what one looks for in a popular nonfiction work. Indeed, the endless succession of compelling interview-quotations keep the book moving, while the broader research prevents Dreher’s thesis from appearing overwhelmingly parochial. In his acknowledgments, Dreher thanks his editor, Bria Sanford, for “teaching [him] how to explain all this monkish stuff to Evangelicals like her” (p.246) and this, in my estimation, accounts for book’s dozen-or-so counts of a clunky evangelical phrase disrupting Dreher’s otherwise superlative prose.
Dreher, unsurprisingly, spends his introduction and first two chapters developing the “crisis” narrative that is supposed to entice readers into embracing the prescription of the following eight chapters. The Benedict Option’s anemic account of “The light of Christianity… flickering out all over the West” (p.8) is plagued, not only by the usual dose of popular and misleading －if not false－ over-simplifications about affairs such as the Protestant Reformation and American Founding; and not only is the book introduced by an alarmism that panders to the fears of religious conservatives, writing that the failure of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act left christians “living in a new country” (p.3), remarking that post-Obergefell, “The public square has been lost” (p.9); the greatest shortcoming of Dreher’s history is his neglect of the early church’s suffering witness as normative, thus establishing a false paradigm for christian presence in society.
Dreher, explicitly taking his cues from the likes of Pope Benedict XVI and Alasdair MacIntyre, likens the West’s current cultural crisis to the 5th century decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Indeed, MacIntyre’s famous line from After Virtue, that “we are not waiting for a Godot, but for another－doubtless very different－St. Benedict” inspired and frames Dreher’s entire project. Along these familiar lines, and with the added aid of Charles Taylor’s disenchantment thesis, Dreher tells the tale of the Christian West and how it has unwittingly sown the seeds of its own destruction for the past eight centuries. By framing “the Rome of Imperial glory” (p.11) as the analogue to Christianity’s cultural dominance in these United States and Europe －mourning the decline of both－ The Benedict Option neglects the wisdom and counsel of the New Testament and early Church. The New Testament Church, far from the centralized citadel of influence and power envisioned by Dreher, was small, weak, oppressed, and obsolete; endeavoring to live quietly, mind their own affairs, and work with their hands in faithfulness to the risen Lord.
In describing today’s decline in Christian cultural dominance, Dreher repeatedly uses the image of a “fifteen-hundred-year flood” (p.8), likening it to his home state of Louisiana’s Great “thousand-year flood” of 2016. Expanding this metaphor to his prescribed response, Dreher writes,
Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to… stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation. (p.12)
Dreher’s plan of “strategic withdrawal” is presented as a merely temporary measure, with a re-ascendency to cultural relevance always looming on the horizon as the normative form of christian presence. The Benedict Option, as we will see －and one of Dreher’s protagonists eventually admits－ is actually just basic, New Testament christian faithfulness. It is by wrapping basic christian living in an alarming analogy to Rome’s collapse that Dreher markets his strategy.
In describing Rome’s fall, Dreher then cites a historical observation from St. Augustine’s City of God as a benign primary source to be placed alongside St. Jerome’s lamentations. The irony is, of course, that City of God was written, in part, to counter the alarmism of the day which had conflated Church and Empire. It is here that augustinian-amillennialists, theologically unphased by the rise or fall of any culture, may be tempted to discard The Benedict Option; but if willing to endure the unfortunate framing, these same augustinian christians will find Dreher’s book to contain genuine insights for christian communities in every age and cultural circumstance.
Yes, Rod Dreher has reinvented and is selling nothing other than a wheel: the humble, historic, unexciting wheel of orthodox christian witness. A wheel as it may be, The Benedict Option, upon inspection, turns out to be quite a robust and well developed wheel. Maybe the flood that we’re in isn’t a cataclysmic, once-in-fifteen-hundred-years event; but we still need an ark.
The Benedict Option, at it’s core, is a handbook for deepened commitment to community, church, family, and education.
Dreher, sounding a note similar to other authors －like Yuval Levin－ who have noted the particularly fractious nature of our political moment, emphasizes that all efforts at cultural engagement must be marked by “a hands-on localism” (p.78) that seeks to build thriving subcultures. This is not only for the strategic reason that “communities start with the individual heart and spread from there to the family, the church community, the neighborhood, and onward” (p.95), but also because “living so closely with others can strain one’s patience” according to Rachel Balducci, a member of an ecumenical charismatic community, who says of communal life’s formative power, “living this way is good for my humility. It’s like being in a rock tumbler. It polishes you and wears away your rough edges” (p.133).
This local emphasis colors all of Dreher’s reflections on church life, education, and electoral politics alike. But this localism also gives The Benedict Option a remarkably domestic flavor, Dreher charging christians to,
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 (p.98).
Dreher, as Andy Crouch noted in this brilliantly brief The Benedict Option in Percentages blog post, is largely concerned with the internal renewal of christian institutions. Bemoaning the multi-generational and trans-denominational “catechesis nightmare”, Dreher reflects on costs of neglecting our catholic heritage,
When Christians ignore the story of how our fathers and mothers in the faith prayed, lived, and worshiped, we deny the life-giving power of our own roots and cut ourselves off from the wisdom of those whose minds were renewed. As a result, at best, the work of God in our lives is slower and shallower than it might otherwise be. At worst, we lose our children (p.103 emphasis added).
Alongside the formative power of catechetical efforts, Dreher channels media critic Marshall McLuhan’ thesis that “The medium is the message” in order to commend a renewed liturgical and sacramental emphasis. This particular emphasis demonstrates Dreher’s commitment to the mere-christian project: liturgical and sacramental renewal is hardly a pressing need for Dreher’s own Eastern Orthodox tradition. Without overstepping his bounds and telling other christians to transgress or abandon their traditions, he encourages Baptists, Reformed, Lutherans, and Catholics to re-engage, not only with their shared catholic heritage (although that’s certainly part), but with the riches of each tradition’s respective theological inheritance.
In addition to encouraging inter-traditional fraternizing over common inheritance, The Benedict Option charges believers of all stripes to “seize every opportunity to form friendships and strategic alliances in defense of the faith and the faithful” after the example of Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus’ “ecumenism of the trenches” (p.136). This vision of collaboration －exemplified in Wichita, Kansas’ Eighth Day Institute－ is not a least-common-denominator, equivocal ecumenism wherein differences are ignored, but a community of card-carrying partisans who “are expected to argue from their own theological convictions, but nobody is trying to convert anybody else, and it’s all in friendship” (p.137).
A multi-generational project, The Benedict Option’s sustainability rests on the life of the christian family. Much of Dreher’s ink, in handling the various loci, is spilled in imperatives to parents. He argues that allowing church life to alter the family’s schedule －withdrawing from weekend sports, missing parties, turning off the TV and praying, etc.－ is not only important for the spiritual health of parents, but instructive to children. Writes Dreher,
Even more importantly, your kids need to see you and your spouse sacrificing attendance at events if they conflict with church. And they need to see that you are serious about the spiritual life (p.125).
Dreher explains that one simple example of such formative, exemplified obedience is his family’s developing an ethos of grace,
In my own family, we practice the habit of asking for forgiveness when we sin against each other. It is hard for me, as a father, to humble myself before my children when I have wronged them, but it’s necessary for my own humility, and it’s important that the kids see that their parents order their lives to Christ as well (p.125).
The Benedict Option sees a particular application for this traditional discipline of child-rearing in moderating content and technology. While rightly articulating the usual points about the growing threat of pornography’s destructive power and increased access to it, Dreher, discontent to simply criticize the content of new media, brings a critical eye to modern technology’s form too.
Dreher argues that the degree of access and lack of limits afforded by modern information technology enslaves users to perpetually receiving content while stripping them of the ability to critically reflect on what they take in. He writes, “Developing the cognitive control that leads to a more contemplative Christian life is the key to living as free men and women in post-Christian America” (p.227). In addition to arguing against the nearly ubiquitous practice of giving smartphones to children, decrying the incorporation of social media into worship services, and commending physical activity, Dreher lauds Reboot, a Jewish organization that “promotes a nonsectarian concept they call ‘digital sabbath’ ”, explaining the concept as “a day of rest in which people disconnect from technology… so that they can reconnect with the real world”, noting that christians ought to incorporate this practice into their sabbatical observance, “not [as] a punishment but rather a means through which one can lay aside the world’s cares” (p.228).
This practice of periodically removing oneself from a particular cultural practice or sphere is central to The Benedict Option, and this is especially true of education.
Dreher is at his best on the locus of education, his chapter Education as Christian Formation is worth the price of the entire book. Excoriating both the ‘missionary’ minded parents who send their children to public school and the protectionist parents who think their duty is fulfilled by paying for a nominally religious education alike, Dreher presents a robust case for classical Christian education. A ringing indictment of the traditional school system, Dreher confesses,
I am a college-educated American. In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil. I knew nothing of Greek and Roman history and barely grasped the meaning of the Middle Ages. Dante was a stranger to me, and so was Shakespeare.
The fifteen hundred years of Christianity from the end of the New Testament to the Reformation were a blank page, and I knew only the barest facts about Luther’s revolution. I was ignorant of Descartes and Newton. My understanding of Western History began with the Enlightenment. Everything that came before it was lost behind a misty curtain of forgetting (p.154).
If I may be similarly autobiographical, I empathize deeply with Dreher’s educational experience. And having received both primary and secondary education in both public and traditional －read non-classical－ Roman Catholic schools, I couldnt agree more with Dreher’s analysis of both.
“Every educational model presupposes an anthropology” writes Dreher, describing the conventional contemporary model as one “geared toward equipping students to succeed in the workforce… and ideally, to fulfill their personal goals－whatever those goals might be” (p.147). He repeatedly observing that this model merely “fills students’ heads with facts, with no higher aspiration than success in worldly endeavor” (p.148).
But Dreher, as noted, is no more impressed with conventional religious education in America than he is with its public counterpart, calling its Christianity a “veneer over a secular way of looking at the world” (p.158), and describes this veneer’s track-record of backfiring,
...even when students at Christian schools do learn the basic truths of their faith, the shallow understanding they gain doesn’t do them much good in the long run… In fact, the trite theological education many received at Christian school will serve more as a vaccination against taking the faith seriously than as an incentive for it. Pull your kids out (p.160).
Per The Benedict Option, there is a better way: classical Christian education. Born out of “marrying the Greco-Roman ideal that the purpose of education is to cultivate virtue and wisdom, to the traditional Christian worldview” (p.160). This classical model “orders everything around the Logos, Jesus Christ, and the quest to know him”, understands “that all of reality is grounded in transcendental ideals”, cultivates personal virtue, and follows “a Great Books approach to the curriculum” (p.160).
While Dreher is certainly not original in his emphasis on Classical education, in fact he praises the work of organizations like North Carolina’s CiRCE Institute, he highlights two areas vital for the future and progress of the Classical model. Confessing the overtly and sinfully exclusionary legacy of Christian schools in the American south, Dreher writes that “Benedict Option schools would be wise to make special efforts towards racial reconciliation by recruiting black families” (p.159). Dreher also notes that if Benedict Option schools are to be accessible beyond the affluent, these schools will need to develop systems of privately subsidizing tuition by the charitable contributions from wealthy believers.
All of the attributes praised above are found, for Dreher, in Maryland’s St. Jerome academy. An existing parish school on the verge of financial collapse, it was revitalized by committed parents who turned it into a classical academy. Dreher praises the St. Jerome re-founders for “submitting to the authority of the parish pastor and the local bishop”, remarking that they “were fortunate that church officials let the visionaries have free reign to try something radically different” (p.164 emphasis added). But here lies the great chink in The Benedict Option’s armor: Dreher’s grassroots vision of cultural renewal －which he explicitly says is “not handed down by a central planner” (p.95)－ is at odds with the episcopal structure of church government found in the ancient Greek and Roman churches that he has most closely associated it with.
Dreher himself knows that the line between a healthy community and a despotic hive can, at times, appear fleetingly thin. Halfway through The Benedict Option, Dreher sympathetically recounts the tale of Ellen, a young woman “whose controlling family drove her to atheism”. After a religious experience, Ellen’s parents “moved the family to their town to join other families who share their near-apocalyptic views”, Ellen describing it as:
We were in a small, close-knit community of homeschoolers. Most people in the group were like my family or even more out there than my family. The only kids I interacted with growing up were other kids in this group (p.138).
In promoting this young woman’s story that this community －every above attribute of which is commended in The Benedict Option－ caused her atheism, Dreher writes that “far from being nurturing, ...her community was extremely controlling” (p.138), responding to her religious doubts with anger and ostracization. The difference, then, between a constructive outpost of christian community and －in Ellen’s verbage－ a “cult”, is as simple as pastoral practice.
The glaring question is: what does Dreher expect Benedict Option christians to do when their grassroots project of cultural renewal runs against the grain of the ecclesial powers that be? In the case of St. Jerome Academy, the diocese permitted the school to be rebuilt; but considering the revenue that conventional Roman Catholic high schools －which Dreher has pilloried－ often bring in, it is easy to imagine a bishop frustrated with the insubordinate laity whose classical academy has siphoned off much of his educational customer base. Again, what does Dreher expect his followers to do when ordered to desist their localized activity by ecclesial authorities for undermining the work of the institutional church? Does Dreher want these Benedict Option christians to quit their transformative work, or disobey men?
This tremendous oversight is where a prudent observer －sympathetic to the project as one may be－ must point out that The Benedict Option is, well, wearing no clothes. The wheel that Dreher has built bears no tire and is set to grind against authority from the word “go”. Luckily, The Benedict Option does hint to a solution; but it is not a solution that Dreher can be expected to like.
Considering that the Benedictine monks of Norsia, upon a close reading, actually serve Dreher’s project primarily as a source for clever and contemplative quotations, rather than as an actual model for Benedict Option christians －indeed, he repeated notes that lay christians ought not make for the hills in monastic fashion－ it should come as no surprise that the most compelling characters in The Benedict Option tend to be the more worldly individuals.
One such protagonist, Lance Kinzer, “a ten-year republican veteran of the Kansas legislature” (p.84), is Dreher’s ideal standard bearer. Working for renewal outside the church by traveling the country, addressing state legislatures about the importance of defending religious liberty; and working for renewal within the church, forming prayer groups and teaching a class in his parish on St. Augustine’s City of God. Kinzer, expressly eschewing alarmism, calls for christians to “internalize” the fact that there is no “silent majority with them” as many have long thought,
I think it’s vital for the health of Christianity, and even for Christian engagement in the political sphere, for them to do just that [internalize minority status]. And it needs to be more than just an intellectual exercise. You need forms of living that reinforce your distinctiveness, that reinforce the kind of ‘strangers in exile’ sense that’s well grounded in scripture (p.86).
But why is Kinzer so instructive and what makes him the clue towards a fully functioning Benedict Option? Lance Kinzer is a presbyterian churchman. Belonging to the evangelical Presbyterian Church in America, Kinzer’s embodiment of The Benedict Option’s localized, grassroots methodology actually comports with his church’s government.
Presbyterians have no bishops, but neither are their congregations fractiously autonomous as with Baptists and other broad-evangelicals; Presbyterians are governed by elders －or presbyters－ at every level. These presbyters are simple churchmen, elected by their fellow members (on the basis of their fitness according to New Testament standards), and confirmed in such a role by the existing local body of elders －the presbytery. These same officers govern the church at the congregational, regional, and denominational level, with authority invested more heavily in the lower courts. This republic of believers is inherently disposed towards localized, grassroots engagement, with church authority rising from the congregation upwards. Short of defying scripture or the church’s confession, there will be no order to desist from a Presbyterian body.
Confined to preaching God’s word and administering the sacraments, the institutional church leaves the details of cultural and political engagement to the conscience of each member. This is the church that Rod Dreher is looking for, where christian orthodoxy can flourish in liturgical worship, organic community, robust family life, and classical education; all without any threat to christian liberty.
Every American christian can benefit from reading Dreher’s The Benedict Option; I expect strong reactions both for and against his narrative of decline, but the heart of his prescription is an excellent case for the traditional practices of christian faithfulness and their application for today, regardless of one’s historical hermeneutic. Buy The Benedict Option’s wheel, and consider my Presbyterian tire; we just might find (if I may once again adapt Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous line) that we are not waiting for a Godot, nor for a St. Benedict, but for another－doubtless very different－ J. Gresham Machen.