This is the first in a series of posts in which I will be blogging through Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. This post covers the book’s introduction and chapter one.
I first began reading Rod Dreher’s work sometime in 2008 or 2009. I can’t recall exactly when, but it was shortly shortly after the election of Barack Obama. As a conservative working in conservative media, the 2008 presidential campaign felt surreal. The ascension of Obama and the bizarre twists and turns of the McCain-Palin campaign left a lot of conservatives bewildered. It was like standing on the beach, watching the tsunami waves rising, and then feeling the weight of the water crash down up you. Eventually, when you surface, soaking wet and gasping for breath and looking around, you ask yourself, “Why was I standing on that beach in the first place?” (Oddly enough, I had this same feeling for the entire 2016 presidential campaign, but it was in super slow motion.)
Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons was a real game-changer for me, as it re-framed the whole of conservatism in terms that I recognized, as both a political and theological conservative.
In the introduction to The Benedict Option, Dreher reflects on the months after his first child was born. He had always considered himself a conservative, but now as a father, he noticed that his politics were changing. He muses:
I began to realize how my politics were changing as I sought to raise our child by traditionalist Christian principles. I began to wonder what, exactly, mainstream conservatism was conserving. It dawned on me that some of the causes championed by my fellow conservatives — chiefly an uncritical enthusiasm for the market — can in some circumstances undermine the thing that I, as a traditionalist, considered the most important institution to conserve: the family.
I share that perspective, and it’s from that place that I view The Benedict Option as chiefly a critique of the right, of mainstream conservatism, and of the modern church. Many are approaching this book as first a critique of the secular culture or the progressive church, but I think that’s a largely secondary consideration, which I will discuss further as I move through the book.
Dreher draws from the work of philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, who in his book After Virtue argues that the present cultural moment is akin to the fall of the Roman Empire. The West, he believes, has abandoned faith and reason, and instead, we have succumbed to radical individual relativism. McIntyre calls this emotivism, “the idea that all moral choices are nothing more than expressions of what the choosing individual feels is right.”
McIntyre extends his analogy of modern day to the fall of Rome by pointing us to St. Benedict of Nursia. Benedict was born in 480 AD, several years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Benedict headed from his mountain village to Rome to further his education. Upon arriving in Rome, Benedict saw that the great city was a shell of its former self. The city had been sacked and overrun. Its population decimated, and the foundations of the Western world were crumbling. Vice and corruption reigned in Rome.
In response, Benedict left Rome, and headed into a nearby forest. He lived there for three years as a hermit, praying and meditating. When he emerged, the monks who had visited him during his time in the cave asked him to be their abbot. Benedict would go on to found twelve monasteries in the area and would eventually write what has become known as the Rule of Saint Benedict — a guide to living in Christian community.
Benedict’s Rule was a training manual for the monks living in community. It was practical guide for those living together in the monastery. These monasteries, founded by Benedict and centered around his Rule, would continue to fan the flames of the Christian faith, evangelize barbarian peoples teaching them how to read, to pray, to build and craft, and to farm. These monks spent endless years transcribing ancient texts so that they might be preserved. Through all of this, the monks, those who lived near their monasteries, and those who came into contact with the monks received nurturing and ministry. The net effect over the next few centuries was that societies which were nearly obliterated in post-Roman Europe were now prepared for a rebirth.
All because of Benedict’s decision to leave Rome and to establish communities that would prepare for a new day, so far off in the distant future that it could not have been imagined.
So what does this have to do with today? McIntyre believes that we’re awaiting, “another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” The modern world looks very much like fallen Rome, and the tactics we’ve been employing to hold the barbarians at bay have failed.
Now, to some, that might sound alarmist. After all, Christians still make a majority of the American population, right? 75% of the total population and 91% of Congress. White evangelicals just got Donald Trump elected. In a country where mosques and Jewish community centers are routinely targeted for violence, Christians should hardly complain about persecution.
Except that’s not, at all, what this is really about.
This isn’t about some manufactured sense of persecution of Christians. It’s not about a loss of privilege.
It’s about conservative Christians recognizing that the reason American culture has crumbled isn’t because of gay rights activists. It’s not because of progressive university professors. It’s not because of the Democrats. It’s not because of the liberal elite.
It’s because the church is failing … badly.
While the Obergefell decision represents a tipping point for Dreher, it is by no means the catalyst for the Benedict Option. We need the Benedict Option because what we’ve been doing as traditionalist Christians hasn’t worked.
Dreher starts by looking inside the church first. He cites the Pew Research Center data that shows a third of, “18-to-29-year-olds have put religion aside, if they ever picked it up in the first place.” At that rate, in just a generation or two, churches will be empty. That’s not alarmist. That’s demographics.
He goes on to pull from Christian Smith’s research. Smith examined the faith beliefs and practices of Christian young people. He concluded that many, if not most, of them do not practice anything that resembles historical, biblical Christianity. Rather, their religion, he argues, is Moral Therapeutic Deism. The five tenets of MTD are:
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Dreher goes on to cite additional data from Smith from his later research which supports the notion that most Christians in America are, “actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.”
Do you doubt that? Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Please, don’t be alarmed.
Joel Osteen has sold $55 million in books and other products. Please, don’t be alarmed.
In an interview with Dreher, Smith said, “America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer … That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.” Please, do not be alarmed.
With this as the background, Dreher evokes Noah, who built an ark when God sent a flood. Noah entered the ark not to abandon the world or to escape it once and for all. Instead, the ark was means of preserving God’s creation, as Noah and his family waited for the waters to recede.
The stage has been set for the Benedict Option.