The Benedict Option is one of the highest selling Christian books of the year and also one of the most controversial. Likely hundreds of reviews have been written, famously whether the reviewer has read the book or not. Given the amount of noise and misunderstanding surrounding the book, it is worth adding my own brief review to spell out what Dreher says in the book having (actually) read it a couple of times.
Dreher writes in ways that are both inviting and off putting. He can be humble, for example, the subtitle “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” implying there might be other strategies than his own. He can also be dogmatic, repeatedly stating the Benedict Option, or some variant, is necessary for Christianity to survive in the West. Clearly, writing in such a way does not endear the book to those who have their doubts about the Option.
First of all, what the Benedict Option is not. From what I can tell, the primary stumbling block is his call to Christian community, by which some assume Dreher means a retreat from society into communes in the woods. The difficulty is that Dreher never spells out precisely what he believes Christian community should look like. For himself practically, increasing community meant moving his family closer to his congregation – they were 45 minutes away – so they can participate more fully in the life of the church, particularly in regards to prayer. Hardly a retreat into a commune in Idaho. In an interview on the Mere Fidelity podcast, Dreher said he didn’t spell out the practical details of community because he doesn’t know exactly what it should look like in every case and didn’t want to write a How To guide. Fair enough. To dispel the idea that Dreher is suggesting a full withdrawal from society here is a quote on evangelical presence to the wider world from his chapter on Christian community,
‘Ultimately, I think Christians have to understand that yes, we have to be countercultural, but no, we don’t have to run away from the rest of society…We have to be a sign of contradiction to the surrounding society, while still nurturing our own community so we can fully form our children.’ (p. 134)
The other stumbling block is his take on the urgency of the Christian situation in Western culture. Dreher pulls no punches; he believes Christianity will be more or less wiped from Western civilization if Christians don’t make radical changes to our thinking and practice. In the first chapter, he gives some statistics about the decline of Christian beliefs and church attendance, noting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism now serves as its replacement, and then, in chapter 2, gives an intellectual history from the 14th century to the present detailing how the decline occurred. Dreher certainly could have spent more time supporting his case. However, I don’t think this was necessary. He has spent years presenting objective evidence for the decline of Christian practice in the West on his blog at The American Conservative. In the last Presidential election I saw concerned reports of anti-religious legislation and political rhetoric denigrated as fear mongering by Christians of a different political persuasion. From this I learned a lesson – people will not easily believe facts that don’t match their core life narratives. I don’t doubt this applies as well to me as it does to everyone else by the way. Dreher can present data and stories all day long, but people will not easily accept that information if it does not match their narrative of what is supposed to be happening.
What is the Benedict Option? Dreher doesn’t provide a statement spelling it out. However, the practices that constitute the Benedict Option are clear enough from the book:
- Prayer, corporate and individual, must be the center of our lives
- The teachings of our forefathers in the faith must be rediscovered
- Some form of liturgical worship – Word and Sacrament – should be implemented instead of entertainment driven services
- Spiritual practices – asceticism – must be incorporated into our daily lives
- Church discipline must be implemented against church members who chose to live in sin
- Believers must be actively involved in the life of their local congregation
- Hospitality must become the norm
- Classical Christian education should be reintroduced where possible
- Parents should pay attention to the influence their children’s friends have on them
- Parents should catechize their kids
- Pastors and parents must educate the next generation about healthy sexuality
- Parents must keep watch over their children’s use of the internet and entertainment in general
If Dreher is right and much of the Church in the West has become secularized, than one would expect a widespread, and total, rejection of The Benedict Option by popular Christian leaders. Check. For me the most upsetting aspect of reading the book was being aware of the wholly negative reviews by evangelical Christian leaders. Much of the book is a call to revive historic Christian practices. If you are a Christian that doesn’t see any value in Dreher’s recommendations than you’ve gone off…full stop. That doesn’t mean there can’t be disagreement in certain areas, for example, there is plenty of room for discussion concerning his suggestions on education and work, but a wholesale rejection is not OK. I’ve titled this post “The Benedict Option – Well, Duh” because so much of the book consists of obvious suggestions for improving Christian practice. I say this, not to denigrate the book – we need basic guides to healthy Christian living – but to express shock at those who entirely reject it. Live in fellowship with other Christians. Pray. Fast. Teach Christian doctrines to your children and guard them. Reconnect with the historic Church. Duh.