A few weeks ago we took a look at Rod Dreher’s first book, Crunchy Cons, to better understand Dreher’s journey from a countercultural politics to a countercultural church, what he calls “The Benedict Option.” A much shorter version of this review appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Christian Chronicle. For more on The BenOp and what it means to be the church, check out our thread on The Body of Christ.
Post-modernity. Post-Christianity. Post-truth. How should the church respond?
That’s the question Rod Dreher explores in his latest book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher is currently a senior editor and blogger for The American Conservative, and has been writing off and on about “The BenOp” for over a decade.
His inspiration comes from the closing paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work, After Virtue. There, MacIntyre writes:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict. (ch. 18; unless otherwise noted, all emphases added)
In his first book, Crunchy Cons, Dreher discussed what he saw as the chief failure of modern conservatism: a consumerism that threatens our health, our homes, and our habitats. But as Dreher muses in his final chapter, maybe MacIntyre’s right. Maybe politics just isn’t what we’ve made it. Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong questions. Maybe it’s not enough to change Washington.
So while Crunchy Cons moves steadily from politics to culture to religion, The Benedict Option moves in the opposite direction, from religion to culture to politics. Instead of explaining why society needs Christianity (apologia) or proclaiming the truth of Christianity (kerygma), Dreher shows what classic Christianity looks like when lived confidently (ekklesia). He continues:
I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in practice. 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. (Introduction, emphasis in original)
The good news is that we’ve been here before. Joseph saw it, as did Daniel, Esther, and Peter. And as Dreher points out, so did Benedict. After Rome fell in the fifth century, Benedict of Nursia renounced the pride of politics for the beauty of holiness. He recognized he couldn’t save the city from within its ruined walls, so he headed for the hills. And remarkably—and in hindsight—that’s when things started to look up:
Benedict’s example gives us hope today, because it reveals what a small cohort of believers who respond creatively to the challenges of their own time and place can accomplish by channeling the grace that flows through them from their radical openness to God, and embodying that grace in a distinct way of life. … This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. (ch. 1)
So what does the BenOp actually look like? Although The Benedict Option provides several good examples, its core principles are best stated in the afterword to the paperback edition of Crunchy Cons. There Dreher outlines what he calls “a Benedictine-inspired rule adapted for modern countercultural living.” Here it is in full:
We are a school for the service of God. Everything we do, alone or together, can only be done through him and for him. Our purpose is to help each other live out the virtues in a community bound by faith in God, love of neighbor, and commitment to the principles in this Rule.
The hardest part of this modern BenOp is that these changes have to start with us. Some might not seem that radical, but others strike closer to our modern roots, presenting challenges even for the faithful. In short, if we are to point others to the Truth, we can’t merely talk about it, we have to show them the Way, show them the Life—and that means walking it ourselves (John 14:1-6). Dreher again:
Put more plainly, unbelievers today who cannot make sense of the Gospel’s propositions may yet have a life-changing wordless encounter with the Gospel through Christian art or works of Christian love that pull them outside themselves and confront them with the reality of Christ.
The same is true for the church today. There are parts of the BenOp that I still can’t endorse and many others that I’m still working on, but Dreher’s chief point remains: We are going to have to be the body of Christ, embodying His grace in a distinct way of life, confronting others with His own divine reality. Or in Dreher's own words, “If you ask me, it’s time that we became our own Benedicts” (Crunchy Cons, ch. 8).
Benedict is a good model, but in Christ we have an even better one; because this is what Jesus did (John 1:14, 17), and this is what He calls us to do. As John wrote, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17 ESV). The world comes to see the resurrected and ascended Christ only in Christ’s own confident and loving people, the church.
But to be for the world, we cannot be of the world. We have to be the church; we have to be more like Christ.