The Benedict Option is a frustrating book. Despite the polarized reactions to the volume—some of which appeared before it was even released—this is not (it seems to me) the kind of book that a thoughtful reader can either embrace in toto or dismiss entirely. Rod Dreher is too inconsistent in his description of “the Benedict Option” to give such a reader a solid reason either to reject this work or to reshape his life (and the life of his family) around its stated premise.
The Benedict Option was inspired by certain ruminations of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre about what life in a society “after virtue” (the title of MacIntyre’s most famous work) might entail. Dreher uses the phrase as shorthand for “a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation” (the subtitle of his book). When we use any shorthand too often, we run the danger of robbing the phrase of its meaning—not simply by separating it from the reality it was originally meant to describe but by starting to apply it to multiple, and sometimes contradictory, things. Dreher’s use of “the Benedict Option” reminds me of an earlier (and in some ways equally frustrating) volume of his. Dreher used the phrase “crunchy cons” to describe a rather wide variety of people engaged in an even wider variety of practices that, in the end, were all bound together by one common thread—Rod Dreher found them interesting. That others, like myself, found most or all of the stories that Dreher told in Crunchy Cons interesting as well did not change the reality that, in the end, the book told us more about what Rod Dreher finds compelling than it did about a discrete phenomenon that could be described as “crunchy conservatism.”
As he did for Crunchy Cons, Dreher interviewed a rather diverse group of people for this book, all of whom understand the dangers that the modern world poses to the Faith and see problems with the way most Christians are living in that world. The stories of the literal spiritual descendants of Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism; of the Italian Tipi Loschi community; of various Catholic and Orthodox and evangelical churches and communities; of homeschoolers and others rediscovering the classical curriculum—all of these are interesting and well worth reading. What does not work quite so well is Dreher’s attempt to tie them together.
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I obviously do not know how Dreher composed the book, but it feels as if he largely wrote it from beginning to end (as opposed to, say, writing certain later chapters first, and earlier chapters later—not an uncommon practice). Along the way, the meaning of the Benedict Option morphs. I have read that Dreher is frustrated by those who describe the Benedict Option as a defeatist strategy, a withdrawal from the world, even an abnegation of our central duty as Christians to go and make disciples of all the nations. That, he has said, isn’t his ultimate message—and he’s right. But the reader wouldn’t necessarily know that unless he finishes the book, because the earliest material (despite a few disclaimers) largely justifies his critics’ impression. Right there on page 2 of the book we find “I called the strategic withdrawal prophesied by MacIntyre ‘the Benedict Option’” (emphasis mine). He states that we will lose our children and our grandchildren unless we shelter them by following the Benedict Option. He refers to our times as a new “Dark Age.” He makes the theologically dubious statement that “Jesus Christ promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church, but He did not promise that Hell would not prevail against His church in the West.” (Even if one understands the intent behind Dreher’s statement, it creates, on its face, a divide in the Church that does not reflect the reality behind Christ’s promise.)
Yet Dreher paints the Benedict Option in rather different colors in the final pages of the book:
[T]he 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.
Dreher’s harshest critics, though, have not been those who were looking for Christian optimism and failed to find it because they didn’t read far enough. Rather, they have been people who would describe themselves as political conservatives and often nationalists who agree with the most pessimistic portions of Dreher’s description of the problems we face today, but who, even if they are Christians, propose as the only true solution a vigorous engagement in national politics. (One could call them Flight 93 conservatives.) Thus, while they might find reassuring Dreher’s claim that the Benedict Option is not “a plan for constructing communities of the pure, cut off from the real world,” they would reject the mindset behind the lines that come before it:
The Benedict Option is not a technique for reversing the losses, political and otherwise, that Christians have suffered. It is not a strategy for turning back the clock to an imagined golden age.
The problem with the Benedict Option, for such critics, is that it is not intended to #DrainTheSwamp or #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.
Yet just as these critics agree with Dreher on the depth of our political and cultural crisis, they share with Dreher another tendency: Both have turned to a misunderstanding of history to justify their particular programs. In the months leading up to the election, comparisons of Donald Trump to the emperor Constantine were rampant among Christians of a nationalist stripe. What such Christians failed to realize, however, is that Trump could never be a Constantine, because Constantine himself was not a Constantine—not in the way that they meant it.
Similarly, Saint Benedict was not a practitioner of the Benedict Option, as Dreher means it (at least in the earlier portions of his book). Benedictine monasticism, it is true, played an important role in preserving much of the best of classical culture, and transmitting it to future generations. And in more ways than most Christians today realize, monasteries became the backbone of the medieval world, centers not only of learning but of medicine and agriculture.
But it is a logical fallacy to assume that, because these things happened, the great patron saint of Europe intended them to happen. Dreher—and, to be fair, many Christians (especially Catholics) before him—reads back on Benedict’s establishment of monasticism in the West an intent that is both far grander in scope yet far more mundane in purpose than what Benedict had in mind.
What Benedict had in mind was to serve God, and through him his fellow man. In the Conclusion to The Benedict Option, Dreher recounts a conversation with a Presbyterian pastor who understands exactly what Saint Benedict intended. “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine,” Pastor Greg Thompson told Dreher. “It can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.”
Not surprisingly (to my mind, at least), Thompson “is cautious about the [Benedict Option] movement” (Dreher’s word, but emphasis mine). Movements are inherently ideological, and ideology, in all of its forms, is the very sickness that lies at the heart of the modern world. Christianity is not an ideology; it is not a movement; it is, as the earliest Christians (all the way back to the Acts of the Apostles) called it, the Way.
Benedict followed the Way, and even though it may appear to us that it took him out of the world, it drew him more deeply into it, because the Way leads to the Truth and to Life. “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” Everything that Benedict did followed from this, and everything that followed from what he did had its roots in this.
We call that Christianity. That is the real Benedict Option.