Intentional Communities for Moral Crusaders
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
By Rod Dreher
Pages: 262 pages
Review Author: Thomas Storck
Although Rod Dreher’s latest book, The Benedict Option, appeared only in the spring of this year, the name and the idea may well be familiar to NOR readers. Dreher himself has been writing about it since at least 2009, and others have discussed what he labels the “Benedict Option,” or something akin to it, for many years before that. Indeed, Dreher took the broad idea and even the explicit reference to St. Benedict from Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981). For reasons not fully understandable, Dreher’s book has received more attention than is usual for books written by Christians (Dreher, who was raised a Methodist, converted to Catholicism and eventually to Eastern Orthodoxy), including a long and mostly sympathetic treatment in The New Yorker.
The book is written in a breezy style and reads like a series of short magazine articles. Each chapter is divided into subheadings, which generally occupy two to four pages, and are often based on interviews Dreher conducted with various people who are living what he calls the Benedict Option.
What, exactly, is this Benedict Option? Essentially, it is a strategy for surviving in a society that is fast losing the veneer of Christianity it once possessed and is becoming increasingly hostile to and intolerant of Christian moral principles. Dreher summarizes: “In just over a century, Christians have gone from the center of American culture to its margins.” He writes especially for those Christians who, for the past 30 years or so, have hoped for a kind of secular salvation in electoral politics, who think there’s nothing “that can’t be fixed by continuing to do what Christians have been doing for decades — especially voting for Republicans.”
But, Dreher protests, this is not an adequate response to our situation, which goes well beyond what can be addressed via politics, since most of the principal institutions of our society have turned against Christian belief and morality. The causes of the decline of Christian faith go much deeper than winning or losing elections and must be addressed by other means. Instead, Dreher proposes different forms of partial withdrawal from mainstream political, social, or economic life, and a consequent focus on the well-being of our families, local churches, and communities. “Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles,” he writes, “we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.”
His suggestions include directing our political activity toward select local issues, especially religious freedom. Specifically, he recommends starting intentional Christian communities, directing Christian worship away from superficial copying of contemporary entertainment and toward classic liturgy and spirituality, teaching children at home or in classical Christian schools, starting small businesses that avoid the cultural conformity increasingly supported by big business, and disengaging from the excessive and omnipresent social media, which, he rightly notes, are responsible for numerous social and moral ills, including the wide consumption of pornography. Dreher summarizes some of his proposals thus: “Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors…. 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.”
In his analysis of the ills of contemporary society, Dreher focuses considerable attention on matters of sexuality, including lack of commitment to faithful marriage, widespread acceptance of same-sex unions, transgenderism, and so on. This is understandable given the prominence of such matters in contemporary debate and controversy. But at times he seems in danger of identifying morality per se with sexual morality, making opposition to these evils the chief or only hallmark of being an authentic Christian. Certainly, Dreher is correct that American society has turned with a vengeance against Christian doctrines in the area of sexual morality. Thus, people in various walks of life find themselves penalized for failing to go along with the new consensus. Physicians, teachers, those involved in various ways with weddings — they and others face actual or potential loss of livelihood if they insist on obeying their consciences.
Despite this troubling trend, there is much more to Christian morality than the sixth and ninth commandments. Although at times Dreher writes as if he has forgotten this, he is not unaware of the many other cultural and social evils that harm Christian life. More than once he notes the corrupting influences of individualism and consumerism, and, mentioning how “Germany’s strict laws mandating shop closing times” promote both small businesses and family life, he contrasts “workaholic modern America” with a Europe whose “consumer culture manages to cultivate more balanced, integrated lives for the German people.” These laws exist because they are culturally acceptable to Germans — their laws and culture mutually reinforce each other, just as American laws and culture mutually reinforce each other. Dreher approvingly quotes Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, who says that “Enlightenment liberalism, from which both U.S. parties are descended, is built on the premise that humans are by nature ‘free and independent,’ and that the purpose of government is to liberate the autonomous individual.” As Dreher notes, “This is contrary to what both Scripture and experience teach about human nature.” Too few American Catholics, or any other Christians, understand that it is a small step from the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of a right to the “pursuit of happiness” to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s infamous claim of a “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
In addition to Dreher’s critique of individualism and consumerism, this book has other welcome and surprising points. Although Dreher does not stress the harmful cultural effects of capitalism, when he does mention it, he is clear about those effects. For example, he quotes Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, who states that America’s “thin Christian veneer” is “being stripped away by the combinations of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.” More remarkable still, in the face of the obdurate Americanism of most American Christians, Catholic or Protestant, conservative or liberal, Dreher criticizes aspects of the American founding, noting that most of the Founders were either “confessed Deists” or “strongly influenced by Deism,” and that the “U.S. Constitution, a Lockean document, privatizes religion, separating it from the state.” Although he considers that this may have accomplished some good, “It laid the groundwork for excluding religion from the public square by making it a matter of private, individual choice…. Enlightenment liberalism contained the seeds of Christianity’s undoing.”
Nevertheless, The Benedict Option is not without faults. Dreher is ambiguous, and probably ambivalent, in his evaluation of American culture and politics. He apparently believes that the conditions that make what he calls the Benedict Option necessary began with the sexual revolution, even if much earlier ideas and practices may have paved the way. But perspicacious observers of the American scene knew better long ago. For example, Dreher advocates withdrawing from the public schools; the American bishops strongly denounced them in the 19th century. Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester noted at the time that public schools teach a “mongrel morality, this code of compromises and concessions, a bit from Tom Paine, another from Jesus of Nazareth, some sentences from Benjamin Franklin, then Saul of Tarsus, something too from atheist Frenchmen, all sifted and sorted by a school board nominated at a ward caucus and elected amid the turbulence of party strife.”
Although the extensive Catholic school system McQuaid and his fellow bishops created at great cost has now mostly abandoned its Catholic heritage, the point is that Dreher’s insisting on separate schools is nothing new. Catholics, as well as a few Protestant denominations, have always known that public schools can hardly be relied on to offer an education that integrates knowledge of things divine with things of this earth.
On the question of sexual morality, the American bishops were concerned enough about motion pictures way back in the 1930s that they established the Legion of Decency and pressured Hollywood to observe its own censorship code. The sexual revolution of the 1960s certainly has had far greater effects than anything that came before it, but this is partly because it occurred at a time when the Catholic Church was uncertain of herself, divided, and consequently offered a hesitating and weak front.
Dreher’s book also displays a curious lack of concern about basic theological distinctions. He is writing for “conservative” or “orthodox” Christians, terms he uses interchangeably over and over. At one point, he speaks of “faithful orthodox Christians — that is, theological conservatives within the three main branches of historic Christianity.” By this he seems to mean simply a Christian who upholds Christian sexual morality — or some of it anyway, for contraception and divorce are not major concerns of his here. But the points of dogma over which our ancestors were willing to face death, doctrines about the Church and the sacraments, grace and justification — these do not seem to register on Dreher’s radar. He is not interested in theological differences among Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestants, all of whom he subsumes into what he calls “the church.” This is curious indeed for someone who adheres to Eastern Orthodoxy, which has a distinct set of doctrines, quite different especially from those of evangelical Protestantism, and which claims for itself the status of the true Church of Jesus Christ.
Equally odd is Dreher’s insistent invocation of the Bible as the standard for Christian beliefs and morals. He repeatedly refers to “biblical Christianity,” “Bible-based morality,” “the authority of the Bible,” and so on. This is how Protestants talk, and one would imagine that such phrases sound as strange to Eastern Orthodox Christians as they do to Catholics. Sacred Scripture does not teach a clear and consistent theology or moral code, nor was it intended to do so. The Bible is intelligible only within the Church and as interpreted by the Church.
This raises the question of the book’s intended audience. Dreher interviews and cites Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox almost indiscriminately. Obviously, he believes that there is a Christian front, made up of “conservative” Christians — those who are on the “right side” of the culture wars, and who, in practice, are apt to support conservative politicians — but the dogmatic differences that our ancestors regarded as fundamental seem to hold little interest for him. Dreher offers an essentially moral or even political, rather than theological, understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ. But Christian morals flow from doctrine, which is why Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox disagree about key moral points. It is not sufficient to lump together everyone who takes the same side on certain hot-button issues and ignore other issues that are less controverted today or have been quietly shelved by American Christians of all kinds, according to the pragmatic temperament of this country, which looks upon dogma and theology as so many intellectual games. Certainly, ecumenism has done much damage in this regard, and we should realize, above all, the necessity of safeguarding the Church’s doctrinal heritage, not just join in moral crusades. If Dreher is a clear-thinking Eastern Orthodox Christian, one would think he would be anxious to convert others to his faith, and not spend his efforts telling those he presumably regards as gravely mistaken in their beliefs how to shore up their failing congregations.
American culture has undergone and is undergoing a profound shift. Unfortunately, this is occurring at a time when the Catholic Church worldwide is in an equally profound crisis and hence not offering clear and strong guidance, even to her own faithful. In the past, reform of the Church has usually come from a vigorous pontiff or a new religious order. The Dominicans and Franciscans, and later the Jesuits, all came on the scene during serious crises in European Catholicism. Given our lack of these remedies, and the absence of any clear direction from the hierarchy, Catholics must seek to discern how God wishes each of us to respond to the civilizational crisis we now face. For some people, withdrawal into intentional rural communities is the answer; for others, it is selective engagement with various cultural or even political organs and institutions; for others, there are doubtless different tactics. Dreher’s Benedict Option offers suggestions that can serve as a point of departure for a more serious discussion of how Catholics should undertake our apostolate in the new millennium. As long as this book is regarded as simply a collection of ideas about what can or might be done, and its faulty cultural and theological framework is overlooked, it can be a helpful contribution to figuring out how we can navigate today’s difficult and increasingly confusing environment.
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