Perhaps you’ve been hearing about this new book, “The Benedict Option” by Rod Dreher, and wondered, “What’s that?” Let’s talk about it.
A new book by blogger Rod Dreher, “The Benedict Option,” has already been debated, discussed, and by some, dismissed and denounced before it was even released—or read. Well, now it’s out, and it’s worthy of a thoughtful discussion, particularly about what Rod calls “a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity.”
The Benedict Option name comes from the last page of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book “After Virtue.” As Dreher recently explained, “MacIntyre said the time is coming when men and women of virtue will understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who want to live a life of traditional virtue. These people would find new ways to live in community, he said, just as St. Benedict, the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, responded to the collapse of Roman civilization by founding a monastic order.”
Now as the quote suggests, Dreher’s book makes two key points: first, we’ve arrived at a moment where “full participation in mainstream society” is no longer compatible with living lives of traditional Christian virtue; and therefore, second, the time has come to find new ways of living as Christians.
Now, Dreher’s description of the cultural moment we’re living in will sound familiar to any BreakPoint listener.
For instance, anyone who doubts that American Christians are less free to practice their faith in the public square simply hasn’t been paying attention. I wouldn’t call it persecution, but I wouldn’t call it freedom, either.
And he’s spot-on when he says that “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a term from Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, is the real faith of too many young Christians these days. He’s equally correct to note that this shallow worldview will not withstand the cultural pressures that Christians face.
And that’s perhaps the most important contribution “The Benedict Option” makes: taking seriously the powerful ability of culture to shape our hearts and minds. Culture is a catechizing force, but too many of us are like the fish who don’t know they are wet.
And so, Rod says, Christianity needs to be characterized by “thick ties,” to fellow Christians and institutions, and especially to our churches.
This “thickening” may take the form of physical communities, but most of the time it won’t. And yet still, “the church can’t just be the place you go on Sundays—it must become the center of your life.”
This may sound obvious, but it is, in my opinion, the second important contribution “The Benedict Option” makes. For too many Christians, churches are “a consumer experience,” instead of institutions that shape both who and whose we are. Christian discipleship must become more than merely instructive. It must become formative.
Of course, the controversial aspect of the Benedict Option is Dreher’s call for “a strategic withdrawal.” To many, understandably, this sounds way too much like post-Scopes fundamentalism that abandoned the public square to non-Christians.
Dreher insists that it doesn’t mean the same thing, and I hope not. Because escape is never an option for Christians. We should never retreat into our institutions because we’re seeking safety. We should, however, strengthen them out of loyalty to each other and to the true, the good and beautiful, preserving the best of Christian culture so that we can—at some point—gift it back to the world in acts of grace.
Now whether you agree or disagree with the Benedict option, I am thankful that Dreher’s book is igniting a long-overdue conversation about what it means to live in a post-Christian context.
In fact, we’ve started a conversation on Rod’s book with a dozen or so leading Christian thinkers via an online symposium at BreakPoint.org. Please come to BreakPoint.org to see what they have to say about “The Benedict Option.”
Further Reading and Information
Exploring the Benedict Option: Rod Dreher’s Much-Needed Conversation Starter
Read opinions about Dreher’s book “The Benedict Option” from a number of Christian thinkers at the BreakPoint.org symposium site, here. And then get a copy of the book for yourself–it’s available at the online bookstore.
Find a BreakPoint radio station in your area–Click here.