The light of the Christian faith is flickering out all over the West. American churches are beset by a rapidly secularizing culture, the departure of young people, and watered-down pseudo-spirituality. Political solutions have failed, as the self-destruction of the Republican Party indicates, and the future of religious freedom has never been in greater doubt. The center is not holding. The West, cut off from its Christian roots, is falling into a new Dark Age. The good news is that there is a blueprint for a time-tested Christian response to this decline. In The Benedict Option, Dreher calls on traditional Christians to learn from the example of St. Benedict of Nursia, a sixth-century monk who turned from the chaos and decadence of the collapsing Roman Empire and found a new way to live out the faith in community. For five difficult centuries, Benedict's monks kept the faith alive through the Dark Ages, and prepared the way for the rebirth of civilization. The Benedict Option shows believers how to build the resilience to face the modern world with the confidence and fervor of the early church. Christians face a time of choosing, with the fate of Christianity in Western civilization hanging in the balance. In this powerful challenge to complacency, Dreher shows why churches who fail to take the Benedict Option aren't going to make it.
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There have been so many good reviews and helpful critiques of The Benedict Option that I know I am not going to bring anything new to the discussion. But this is the internet and so I am going to critique it anyway.
Andy Crouch has a post about the problem of the reaction to the Benedict Option is that 90% of the complaints are about 20% of the book (increasing social and cultural hostility to the church). While 80% of the book is devoted to the problems of a lack of meaningful discipleship and how that is causing a collapse of Christian belief and practice and only 10% of the buzz about the book is reacting to that much bigger claim. This is largely true. The problem is that the 20% that is getting the strongly negative reaction fundamentally sets the stage for the 80% of the book that I think is more important. Because the assumptions are wrong, I believe the answers given are then wrong, or at least fundamentally flawed.
It is hard to completely describe what the Benedict Option is. Because after 10 years of Dreher writing about it, he still seems to say that the project as described by almost anyone else other than himself misses his point. At the very least, the Benedict Option is a means of refocusing the church on discipling the young (in both age and Christian maturity) so that they can better stand up to the cultural currents of the age that seek to unmoor Christians from true (small o) orthodox faith.
There is much to agree with in that minimal description of the purpose of the book. Every age needs to pay attention to the particular problems of the age that pulls at the church and attempts to harm the soul of the church. The problem with the Benedict Option as conceived is that he both thinks that our current age has more particular problems to unmoor the church from Christ and that he identifies threats posed by same sex marriage and acceptance as the central part of that threat (as opposed to what I think are probably more important threats like consumerism, individualism, racism and dismissal of the other, etc.).
James KA Smith particularly has called out Dreher for his alarmism. And after initially complaining about the attack, Dreher embraced the label during his book release panel discussion (which is worth watching if you have 2 hours.) The problem is that the alarmism is overblown, even if Dreher thinks he is a voice shouting into the void, I am completely turned off by quotes like this,
“The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America.”
The church is not going to disappear in this life time. And saying that it is, missed our reliance on Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit for the stability of the church. Yes, we should think about how to best disciple people into Christian faith. Yes, we should pay attention to the weakness of our current age. No, we should not fear and end to the church in this or any other age. (After all the church lived through the fall of Rome, the persecution of Muslims and Mongols in the East, colonialism, slavery and the Civil War and Jim Crow in the US and a whole host of other significant internal and external forces that threatened to tear it apart.)
Dreher’s focus is on small and local. That is good. Our age has a tendency to want to be big and efficient in its response to problems. Mass evangelism, large (often government led) poverty and disaster relief, and political or cultural backlash are just a few examples of where we tend to go big. The problem is that Dreher focuses on the nuclear family as the center, not the church. He identifies threats to the family from same sex marriage and economic pressures as a result of taking theological positions against same sex marriage as a center point of that threat, so again, he seems to miss the answer because he misidentifies the problem.
I do think he is right that we need to help people think differently about how to be community and how to live as a family in counter cultural ways. Consciously choosing to take lower paying jobs so that we can be more active in our community or so that we can care for aging parents or so that we can illustrate good family life is to be encouraged. But we should be encouraging that type of counter cultural behavior out of love of neighbor, not fear.
I am not sure anything illustrates my frustration with the book more than his section on education. He calls for a completely withdrawal of Christians from public education because public education is, ‘neither rightly orders, nor religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization.’ And he thinks that most Christian schools are no better and in some ways may be worse because they can inoculate children to the real gospel. The best method of education in Dreher’s opinion is Christian Classical education, and if you can’t find a local Christian Classical school or coop in your area, or you can’t afford it, then home schooling is an acceptable alternative.
As you likely noticed, part of Dreher’s objection is to a lack of focus on Western civilization within public schooling. This is another example of the problem of the book. It is more focused on the lack of strength of historic western culture than on upholding the church universal. That focus on historic western culture I think is at least partially responsible for the biggest hole in the book, the Black Church. Dreher spends a fair bit of time interviewing people and traveling in Europe (both east and west) and looking at what has and has not worked in Europe’s church. And largely I think that the look at Europe is helpful, although there are different cultural trends that were at work in Europe than in the modern United States (communism, a reaction against the church as a state power, the devastation of two world wars, etc).
But if the problem that Dreher thinks we are facing is a lack of cultural authority, the need to organize our lives differently because we may be economically ostracized, and that we may be politically alienated because of who we are, then the Black church is an example in this culture of someone that has gone before us and can show us the way based on their previous experience. However, the Benedict Option has not a single quote or story from an American person of color, in spite of the fact that this absence has been noted for years in response to Dreher’s blogging about the Benedict Option.
My first example would be John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association. John Perkins has been focused on local efforts, local economic empowerment and conservative political and cultural values. He has stood up to powerful community discrimination and recreated alternative institutions when necessary and worked with local government and culture when possible. Essentially, I can’t think of someone that more embodies a positive view of the Benedict Option as I understand that it can be than John Perkins. Which has been noted by Matt Loftus and others. Jamar Tisby rightly notes that it is hard to take the Benedict Option seriously if you cannot start by learning from those (African Americans) that have gone before.
One final example of how Dreher’s view on education illustrates my problems with the book is that it shows a difference is understanding of the concept of Common Good. As a Christian, I think that while I have a unique responsibility toward my children because they are my children, I do not have a particular responsibility toward my children in a way that excludes my concern for the children of my neighbors. Dreher hints at agreeing with this in a number of places, but overwhelmingly the illustrations within the book dismiss the concerns with common good.
The way that the church should be known a positive conception of caring for the other. Slightly altering Jesus’ statement, what good is it if you care for other Christians and support them only, even pagans can care for their own. I do think that Dreher is right that we as a culture have lost the value of religious freedom. But the real problem is that the church as a whole has lost the value of religious freedom for those that are not a part of the Christian church. Part of the problems for Russ Moore right now in the SBC, is that Russ Moore has been advocating for religious freedom for Muslims in the US and some within the SBC view that as betrayal of his Christianity instead of important work of the church.
If we want to uphold the values of the church and disciple the young well, we do that not by internalizing our struggles and creating new institutions (although that may end up being part of our work) but by making caring for others and their concerns central to the way we disciple the young. We have a struggle to break out of culture. But the struggle is more about our individual cares and our relational isolationism than some unique cultural persecution that we are facing.
There really is more in the book that I agree with than I thought there would be after reading the first couple chapters. But the alarmism of the first section, which sets the wrong tone against the wrong problem, really does carry through the book. I think the vast discussion of the Benedict Option really has been helpful. But it should be clarifying of the problems of the conception of the church more than illustrating the way out of our current situation.