Top Christian Thinkers Reflect on “The Benedict Option”

Responding to Rod Dreher’s Proposal on Church and Culture

Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option” is one of the most anticipated and talked-about Christian books in recent memory. How do Christians carry on and live out the faith in this “new Dark Age,” as Dreher puts it? We’ve asked leading Christian writers and thinkers to share their thoughts on “The Benedict Option.”

Bruce Ashford, Joshua Chatraw, Greg Forster, Michael Francisco, Tom Gilson, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, Peter Leithart, Gerald McDermott, Karen Swallow Prior, John Mark N. Reynolds, Roberto Rivera, John Stonestreet, Glenn Sunshine, Andrew Walker, Trevin WaxLinks to other articles about the Benedict Option

Bruce Ashford

Rod Dreher argues that American Christians must come to grips with the fact that Bible-believing Christians have been decentered socially, culturally, and politically. Christianity comes across as strange and even bad within our society’s reigning plausibility structure. In response to this recognition, Dreher argues that the way forward actually is the way “back” to St. Benedict of Nursia, the early medieval monk who retreated to the forest after Rome’s fall. He built communities that were undergirded by order, hospitality, stability, and prayer. As Dreher sees it, we should learn from those Benedictine communities so that our own American faith communities can be pockets of light in the new Dark Ages.

I appreciate his emphasis on constructing a resilient ecclesial counterculture (the strength of the monastic and Anabaptist visions) with a sturdy liturgical framework (the strength of the Orthodox vision), but wish he had placed more emphasis on our calling to work for the common good in public life (the strength of the Reformational thinkers such as Abraham Kuyper and Lesslie Newbigin).

Bruce Ashford is the provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of “Every Square Inch and co-author of “One Nation Under God.”

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Joshua Chatraw

I am sympathetic to portions of the Benedict Option, but I also have some concerns. While I agree with much of Dreher’s critique of culture, I can’t help but wonder if he is neglecting the cultural gains of our day, while papering over some of the dark aspects of the past. Dreher paints a beautiful picture of monastic life, which all Christians can learn much from and which, I would add, can be a vocation for some. We need, as Dreher points out, to clean up our own house as we reflect on our rich traditions, but part of a healthy ecclesiology is avoiding an overly inward focus. How does this as a general strategy for the church fit with God’s mandate given in Genesis 2 or Jesus’ commission to go to the nations or the missionary pattern described in Acts (in the midst of pagan cultures)? Beyond the ancient wisdom found in the Rule of Saint Benedict, many Christians will want to see a more robust engagement with Scripture to be convinced that the Benedict Option sets us on a course to fulfill our responsibilities to the world.

Joshua Chatraw is executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University.

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Greg Forster

Darrow Miller of Disciple Nations Alliance is right: “If the church does not disciple the nations, the nations will disciple the church.” God’s people are distinct from the world, but they must practice their discipleship in the daily lives that they live within their nations—or else not at all. God has made us social creatures, and we are formed as people and as Christians by our inescapable membership in our nations.

This is why we must overcome the dangerous illusion expressed in Dreher’s call to cease “full participation in mainstream society.” The illusion is not that such a withdrawal is desirable. The illusion is that such a withdrawal is even possible. To be human is to be part of a nation, and when believers try to withdraw into “Christian villages” they only reproduce in miniature the dysfunctions of their nations—because that is who they are. Transformation is needed, but withdrawal does not transform. Instead, as we saw at Pentecost, by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, the gospel is now to be expressed within the daily life of all the world’s nations. We must rely on the Holy Spirit to make us disciples in our daily lives as Americans—for we have no other lives to live.

Greg Forster is director of the Oikonomia Network at Trinity International University.

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Michael Francisco

Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is worth reading for all the reasons having little or nothing to do with its namesake inspiration. The book’s ideas do not hold together in my view—and that is a good thing. The Benedictine backstory and trademark political pessimism are one thing, the suggested responses and ways of cultural engagement are another thing. Dreher clearly argues the former but calls for the latter. I’ll just take the latter, thank you.

Some believe that emulating the Benedictine rules for living is a good option. I remain skeptical. And I pray we have not suffered the “Waterloo of religious conservatives” and are not on the cusp of “a Dark Age that could last centuries,” as Dreher writes. Fortunately, the book’s suggested solutions—living a serious Christian faith, investing in education and parenting, church involvement and neighborly love—are all spot on. These calls to action can and should be embraced because they are biblically sound and good. I’ll take the option and pass on the Benedict (for now).

Michael Francisco, an attorney in Colorado Springs, serves on Summit Ministries’ Board of Directors. 

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Tom Gilson

The most brilliant thing in Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” book is what isn’t there: a one-size-fits-all definition of what he means by this Option. He tells stories instead, illustrating how there are multiple ways Christians can step up our commitment to faith and community.

I wish, however, he hadn’t kept describing Christians as “exiles in place.” “Exiles” is the wrong word. We’re much more like expatriates.

Exiles’ eyes remain turned toward their homelands, where they hope to return as quickly as possible. Often they make it their mission from a distance to accomplish social and political reform back home.

We have no such distant home in need of reforming. Our mission is right where we are. Indeed, there’s another word for Christian expatriate: missionary. Missionaries go out on purpose, sent by God to love the people of their new homelands, and to discover how best to live and share the way of Christ in that cultural context.

We don’t need to adopt the self-pitying language of exile. Instead we can embrace the joyful privilege of being missionaries in place. It isn’t just a more positive approach—it’s why God has us here.

The Benedict Option needs an Expatriate Alternative.

Tom Gilson is senior editor and ministry coordinator at The Stream.

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Mollie Ziegler Hemingway

With The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher provides an insightful and optimistic plan of action for Christians who are starting to realize just how hostile American culture is to their faith. For many Christians this can be a scary thing to confront, but Dreher points us to a wealth of resources already available, provides inspiring examples of model dissidents, and explains how spiritual disciplines have benefited persecuted Christians throughout history. Revising our compromise with the world in politics, education, family formation, and technological engagement is both possible and revolutionary, and Dreher shows how even a minority of committed traditional Christians can reverse the moral drift of contemporary society.

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is senior editor of The Federalist.

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Peter Leithart

Rod Dreher is right. America’s cultural rot registers a 9.5 on the Romans 1 scale. And he’s right that Christian subcultures have more impact on the future than lobbyists. For a generation, many Christians have been doing just what Rod commends.

My question is, for what tale is the BenOp the moral?

Some church fathers feared the end of Rome was the end of the world. Augustine saw Rome as an episode in the bigger story of the civitas Dei, which, Augustine believed, would flourish in her pilgrimage, empire or no empire. I suspect St. Benedict agreed.

Rod knows this. He believes in creation, cross, and eschaton. Yet, though his book gestures toward this biblical story, the BenOp is the moral to a story of Western decline. Despite Rod’s cautions, it tends to treat the church as a helpmeet of American renewal. It’s an agenda to “save the West.”

The Benedict Option aims to escape the imperial project. I worry that Rod is still in thrall to the imperial narrative.

Peter Leithart is president of  the Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies.

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Gerald McDermott

My wife and I lived in Christian communes for seven years and had our first two children there. It was both encouraging and humbling. Encouraging because we learned to grow in faith by the examples and teaching of older Christians. Humbling because we saw more of our own sins, as we lived with and ate with and relaxed with other believers 24/7.

I am glad we did it. We grew immeasurably. But we don’t want to do it again. It was too much—too close—to live under one roof with others. We felt the need for more privacy for our young nuclear family. It might work for singles and single-parent families and for some retired folks. It is essential for children to have role models of each sex. And life can be lonely for single and retired Christians.

But with all of those qualifications, I think the Benedict Option is something Christians need to consider. If the communal lifestyle is not for all believers, it is surely imperative for us to strengthen the Christian family and church community life. My wife and I have found it immeasurably rewarding to participate in daily liturgy (morning and evening prayer using the Daily Office) and the sacraments, weekly at a minimum and daily if possible.

I think starting a book group across denominational lines, and studying a Christian classic, is ideal. Get back to the Fathers. Read Augustine or Athanasius or Gregory together. This is a sure remedy to the shallowness and heresy of too much of today’s Church.

Gerald McDermott is the Anglican Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School.

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Karen Swallow Prior

“The Benedict Option’s” vision is not to make nuns and monks of modern Christians. Nor does it propose a bunker (whether literal or figurative) from which to establish merely an updated version of the fundamentalist separatism of yore. Nor is the turn to Benedict a quixotic attempt to recapture a romanticized past.

To the contrary, “The Benedict Option calls Christians wherever they live and work to “form a vibrant counterculture” by cultivating practices and communities that reflect the understanding that Christians, who are not citizens of this world, need not “prop up the current order.” While the monastery that birthed the Benedict Rule was literal, the monastery invoked in “The Benedict Option is metaphorical. It is not a place, but a way.

Karen Swallow Prior is an author, professor of English at Liberty University, and research fellow at The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. This piece is excerpted (with permission) from her article “The Benedict Option: What it is and isn’t” at the ERLC website.

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John Mark N. Reynolds

The Benedict Option is not a way, but the only way forward for Christians who wish to be more than nominal in their faith. Christianity does not say that Jesus is Lord of part of human life, but of all of human life. We cannot give our entertainment, our work life, or our social lives to secular Caesars and expect to handle the holy things of the church.

Critics of the Benedict Option do not grasp that an alternative city can be Constantinople and not just a monastery or a village. Christians can live quiet lives, but also build an alternative to a Rome intent on barbarian rule. If Rome is unlivable for Christians, then we will make political allies where we can and build a new and better Rome.

Once, the strategy of a Constantine with a Benedict option saved Roman and Greek civilization for 1000 years, so now perhaps a Constantine strategy with a Benedict Option can do the same for American culture. If we cannot defend the old order, or if the decadent elite no longer wants us, then we can empower something new.

Let’s see how it goes. Leave us alone and the cross will triumph. This will not be by might, military power, but because of the Spirit of God. We are not withdrawing, we are rebuilding. Education, for example, can be offered that is high quality, does not require high debt, and is integrated into the family, church, and community.

We are doing this very task at The Saint Constantine School in the heart of a city. Imagine kindergarten through college education: classical, accredited, Christian. You don’t have to imagine it, because it is happening now.

Meanwhile, we will look for allies, build bridges, and refuse narrowness. We will make contacts in the global church. In our case, we look to Syria and Lebanon for a broader community that can keep us from being parochial or “weird.” We must always recall that the values of the church are the values of the global majority. BenOp communities can look for a Constantine or two across the waters to help us.

One hundred years from now, an academic historian of the early 21st century will be a product of a BenOp education, community, and lifestyle. She will begin by noting that just as in the days of blessed Constantine, the sign of the cross, the hard way of traditional Christianity, conquered. Some new city, like Houston, will be the center of a revived American civilization.

John Mark N. Reynolds, Ph.D., is president of The Saint Constantine School and senior fellow in the humanities at The King’s College.

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Roberto Rivera

The space allotted does not permit doing anything resembling justice to a book as important as “The Benedict Option.” So I will have to settle for a question and an observation.

The question is this: Can we separate Dreher’s account of the parlous state of American Christianity from his recommendations for the kind of thicker, more intentional, kind of Christianity that he says we must adopt to weather the coming storm?

On one level, the obvious answer is “yes,” since, as both Dreher and many of his critics agree, this kind of formation and catechesis is what we should have been doing all along. However, the sense of crisis is what gives impetus to the Benedict Option, and if you don’t think things are as bad as he says they are, much, if not most, of the impetus to do things differently is gone.

The observation is that there is virtually no acknowledgement that American Christianity is more than—I grow weary of being “that guy” who points this out—what White Christians are doing.

This isn’t “identity politics” or, even worse, “political correctness.” As Ed Stetzer and Leith Anderson wrote at Christianity Today, African-Americans are substantially more likely (60 percent) to hold Evangelical beliefs than non-Hispanic whites, and Hispanics are as likely, if not a little more, to hold such beliefs as their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

Add the impact of immigration, Hispanic and otherwise, on American Catholicism, and the absence of “non-white” American Christians from Dreher’s narrative becomes a kind of dog that didn’t bark in the night.

Roberto Rivera is a senior fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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John Stonestreet

Rod Dreher insists his Benedict Option’s call for a “strategic withdrawal” isn’t the same sort of post-Scopes fundamentalist abandonment of the public square we’ve seen in the past. I hope not. We shouldn’t retreat into our institutions to seek safety. We should (and this is what I think Dreher is saying) 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.

The most important contribution of the Benedict Option is clearly articulating the powerful ability of culture to shape our hearts and minds. Too many of us are like the fish who don’t know they are wet. And so, Rod rightly says, we need “thick ties” to our fellow Christians and institutions, and especially to our churches.

This seemingly obvious point is, in my view, Dreher’s other very important contribution. If Christians are truly to be the church in this cultural moment, churches must become institutions that shape both who and whose we are. Pastors, parents, mentors, and educators must see education and discipleship as more than instructive. They must commit to establishing identity and loyalty.

John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center and co-host of BreakPoint Radio. For John’s BreakPoint commentary on “The Benedict Option,” click here.

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Glenn Sunshine

Throughout history, up to and including the Reformation, church reform movements always started in monasteries. The reason is simple: Corruption in the church was invariably caused by the church adopting the values of society, and monasteries at their best provided the alternative, biblical value system necessary for church reform. Even after the Reformation, non-monastic, intentional communities such as the early Methodist societies played an important role in reviving the church and reforming culture. Today, if the church is going to fulfill its God-given responsibility to be salt and light in an increasingly hostile world, it must similarly adopt a different value system from society, and this can only be done in intentional communities. If such communities are to succeed, they must avoid the dangers of creeping worldliness on the one hand and overly strict rules on the other, and must maintain a missional orientation rather than being too inwardly focused. As I understand the Benedict Option, this is the heart of Dreher’s proposal. Understood in these terms, it is a self-evident necessity for the church.

Glenn Sunshine is professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and senior fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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Andrew Walker

When interpreted correctly, the Benedict Option offers a pathway of resistance and preservation for Western Christians. That pathway is beautiful, humane, and orthodox. We see family, community, learning, personal holiness, hospitality, and courage at the center of Rod Dreher’s proposal.

I am confounded by the strong denunciations the Benedict Option receives from critics. Anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see ought to abandon the Pollyanna-ish spin that American Christianity, submerged in shallow waters of hollowed-out religion, can continue in its present form and expect a future of vibrant, orthodox witness.

What are we going to do as a result? We need to re-assess the institutions of culture where American Christians have often bent toward being more American than Christian, which is what the Benedict Option calls for. The Benedict Option is a challenge to the flag and the pocketbook, and that means we need to hear it and follow it.

Christianity has deep resources that can make it a beacon of hope to a broken world, and the only way Christians can demonstrate such a witness is by going deep within the Bible and church history. If the Benedict Option can wake Christians up from their slumber, then by all means, I’m for it.

Andrew Walker is director of policy studies at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a Ph.D. candidate in Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of the forthcoming book God and the Transgender Debate.”

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Trevin Wax

The beauty and brilliance of the Benedict Option is Rod Dreher’s insight that we cannot offer to the world what we do not possess. We cannot reach a culture if we have not built a culture of our own. The church must be fortified through vibrant Christian witness and spiritual disciplines if we are to be faithful in the days ahead.

The potential danger of the Benedict Option is that some Christians would claim it as the primary option for Christian witness today, which would lead some to adopt an overly defensive posture toward the world. Yes, we must remember to cultivate “the Shire,” the merry homeland of hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings” that Dreher references. But the storyline of “The Lord of the Rings” focused on a mission. “Seceding from the cultural mainstream,” as Dreher advises, would not preserve the Shire; courage in the face of unbeatable odds was necessary.

I affirm Dreher’s vision for the strengthening of local Christian communities and commend his book, with one caveat: Christians must not battle the progressive “myth of progress” with a different myth, that of inevitable decline. After all, the church is not a fortress besieged by barbarians, but a missionary people battering hell’s gates. Mission, not maintenance, is the story of the church in Acts, which was under far greater threat than conservative Christians face today.

The Benedict Option is a good strategy for fortifying the faith of the next generation. But let’s make sure our emphasis is on winning a spiritual battle, not surviving a spiritual siege.

Trevin Wax is Bible and reference publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and the author of multiple books, including “This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel.” 

 

Update: Read Rod Dreher’s response to our symposium.

 

Other Articles about the Benedict Option

Collin Hansen: “If Politics Can’t Save Us, What Will?” The Gospel Coalition

Heather Walker Peterson: “Why We Need the Benedict Option and How It Doesn’t Have to Return to Fundamentalism,” The Evangelical Pulpit, Patheos

Peter Wehner: Review of “The Benedict Opton: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” National Review Online

 


  • Pete Zanias

    I am not a “Top Christian Thinker” but I do have my opinion on what I’ve just finished reading above and what I’ve previously read of “The Benedict Option”. Admittedly, I have not read the book and probably won’t since there are just “no end to the books” written.

    From what I’ve gathered, Mr. Dreher’s vision isn’t to create modern day monasteries and if it is, I will stand corrected. It is to establish, as Karen Swallow Prior states: “…“The Benedict Option” calls Christians wherever they live and work to “form a vibrant counterculture” by cultivating practices and communities that reflect the understanding that Christians, who are not citizens of this world, need not “prop up the current order.” While the monastery that birthed the Benedict Rule was literal, the monastery invoked in “The Benedict Option” is metaphorical. It is not a place, but a way.”

    The very sad part of most of these comments is they seem to miss this point and they seem to miss the point that the “communities” being spoken already exist. They are the local CHURCH. The purpose of the Church, as I see in Scripture, is to equip the SAINTS, not the world. (Eph 4:11-16). It is not a place for unbelievers or “seekers”, it is a place solely and only for blood-bought Believers. All we need do is look around at the state of professing Christianity today and see that only 4% of “Christians” have a Christian worldview (Barna study) and realize our churches are not doing what the Word calls them to do.

    When we get back to developing and leading local churches where Believers can be built up, where they can have their minds transformed, where they can be prepared to stand against the evils all around, (Eph 6:11-18) then we will see the life changing effects individual Christians can have as witnesses to the culture.

    The Church in China, the Mideast, etc are examples of the “monastic” conclaves Mr. Dreher speaks of. They are concerned with teaching the Truth and making the Christian community strong enough to stand against persecution we yet know nothing or little about.

  • callapp

    Aren’t the Amish a present day example of the Benedict Option.

  • David Goodwin

    The Benedict Option calls Christians to a Christian life together. Sadly, it has taken a 9.1 on the Romans 1 scale (Thank you Dr. Leithart) to push us in this direction. So many of us view a Christian life as a sort of personal holiness. I think TBO’s best chapters are in the second half of the book. The specific suggestions, including school, church, and home are a place to start the conversation.

    David Goodwin, Association of Classical Christian Schools

  • Dwight Welch
  • ovozeh

    What I miss here are some insights from Christians who lived more recently and/or even live today in true “dark ages”. What Dreher is describing as “dark ages” is new to the USA, but not to many countries around the world. Talk to people who lived under communism, who live under islamic culture, etc.