The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher is, at the end of the day, underwhelming. That’s not all its own fault; it arrives amidst much hype, hype which turns out to be rather disproportionate to its more modest aims. On one hand, it’s not clear that those who characterize Dreher as telling Christians to head for the hills have actually read the book, and on the other hand, much of the discussion revolving around the book could lead one to think wrongly that Dreher is offering five easy steps to rebuild the West. Instead, The Benedict Option is most concerned with the day-to-day lives of ordinary Christians. However, the plan it lays out for living in a post-Christian West is quite familiar, and so it’s unclear what the Benedict Option offers that is unique and urgent enough to justify its necessity as a distinct concept.
Dreher begins by briefly outlining what he sees as the unravelling of orthodox Christian culture. What he calls the “roots of the crisis” include the philosophical shift to nominalism, the Renaissance seeing man as “the measure of all things” instead of God, the Protestant Reformation, the Wars of Religion, the Enlightenment’s secular framework for governing society, and the Sexual Revolution, to name but a cursory few. The bulk of the book sketches how Christians might live in this post-Christian culture; to give a very condensed account, it is by individuals putting worship of God at the centre of their lives, establishing communities in which Christians support each other, not putting all of the Church’s efforts into federal politics, careful education, preparing for hard work, chastity, and cutting out the cacophony of electronic media.
The Benedict Option is not aiming to save Christian Western culture. Instead, it’s sauve qui peut now, as Evelyn Waugh would say. It aims to ensure individual persons have the support they need to be as holy as they can despite pressures to accommodate to post-Christian society. As T.S. Eliot says in “The Idea of a Christian Society,” (which Dreher has also quoted on his blog),
The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.
So, then, just how does the Benedict Option help Christians in this situation?
What exactly is the Benedict Option?
Ultimately, I tend to agree with Sam Rocha’s criticism. He argues that, among other things, the book’s account of history and treatment of the various denominations of Christianity are, even for a book aimed at a popular audience, unfocused (for this reason, I shall focus my comments on the book’s relevance to Catholics specifically, instead of trying to speak for Orthodox and Protestant readers too, though they may perhaps find my comments illuminating). However, it’s the slippery concept of the Benedict Option itself that is most troublesome to define.
To a Catholic reader, The Benedict Option seems to propose little more than orthodox Catholicism. Look again at my account of the book’s proposals for living in a secular culture: by Catholics putting worship of God at the centre of their lives, establishing communities in which Catholics support each other, careful education, preparing for hard work, chastity, and cutting out the cacophony of electronic media. The Catechism might not specifically call for giving the Internet a wide berth, but pretty much everything else there is uncontroversially part of Catholic life, whether or not Catholics do them perfectly. And Dreher draws many of these elements quite well. Indeed, but for copyright issues, I’d be tempted to cut out parts of the chapters on Christian life, put them in a volume called Some Models and Challenges of Christian Life, and sell it with no reference to the idea of the Benedict Option.
But if that’s the case, why do we need the Benedict Option? Does it offer anything unique? As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry says,
if what the Benedict Option is is just Christians having more piety, and being more involved in their parish, and having a greater sense of their “dual citizenship” of Heaven and Earth–is there anybody who opposes that? Is there anyone saying Christians should be less pious, or less involved in their church, or less critical of, or complicit in the evil that surrounds them? It seems to me that if that’s what you’re talking about you’re not talking about “the Benedict Option”, you’re just talking about “Christianity.”
So I guess the question that I would like the “Benedicters” to answer is: … what is it that you’re about that’s not just Christians being more pious, such that it makes sense to not just call for more piety, but for something more specific called “the Benedict Option”?
Gobry asked this in November 2014, and it still applies. Indeed, Dreher vindicates Gobry when he quotes Pastor Greg Thompson as saying, “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine.” That’s well and good, but it doesn’t explain why we need the Benedict Option to focus on communion with Christ.
Dreher doesn’t ignore the question altogether; he quotes Leah Libresco Sargeant as saying that the Benedict Option rebrands some parts of Catholic life to be more attractive because “people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.” But is that rebrand really necessary?
If I may wander into a personal anecdote for a moment, my Catholic friends and I have long struggled with the issues to which the Benedict Option seeks to respond. We’ve discussed them and struggled about how to be students and workers without compromising our faith. Some of us have put some of the things Dreher has also proposed into practice. Bluntly, we haven’t needed the concept of “the Benedict Option,” and I don’t think it’s because we’re all so incredibly saintly. I suspect that most of these friends if they read the book, might broadly sympathize with its vision of Christian life; however, they would then say, “But that’s what we already knew we should be doing anyways.”
Now, maybe my friends and I are not the target audience. There may be many other readers who, because of the fresh branding, find in The Benedict Option a new understanding of the world and the tools they need to take action. But if branding is the only distinctive aspect of the Benedict Option, it’ll be superfluous for many of the Catholics who are already sympathetic to Dreher’s message, and it remains to be seen if the unsympathetic will be swayed, and whether they are swayed because of a fresh perspective.
An Attitude Adjustment
I think what is distinctive about the Benedict Option is the attitude behind it. Being a Benedict Option Catholic, as I understand it, is to approach the relationship between faith and secular culture with a certain attitude. It’s not about Catholics living in a new way, or a fresh way of presenting Catholic life; it’s about Catholics having a very specific reason for living as they do.
If a one is a Benedict Option Catholic, one might be living the tenets of one’s faith as best one can not only out of faithfulness, but also because one knows that one is in tension with the culture, and intends to preserve that faith. One intends not only to be faithful to God, with cultural pressures being incidental but to be faithful to God despite it being easy to embrace the surrounding post-Christian society and is determined that this faith shall endure any present cultural unravelling.
Again, this is, of course, not unique to the Benedict Option. Catholics have always lived in cultures to which they were alien, deliberately keeping a distinct way of life. It doesn’t seem fair to classify what people are already doing as belonging to a new concept, or to say that everybody’s been doing the Benedict Option without knowing it, though this may make it seem less foreign and daunting.
The Benedict Option defines this traditional way of life for a very specific context: the present unravelling of Western Christian culture. It offers Catholics in this context a term they can share to denote not just their faithfulness, but their intentions and relationship towards a particular post-Christian society.
The term is very general, yes, and it’s only barely distinguishable from the already-existing model Catholic life. One might think it a splitting of hairs. However, if nothing else, it provides a term with which Catholics may clarify, make explicit, and communicate a shared attitude towards this post-Christian society. It fills a gap in language in order to respond to a contemporary iteration of an eternal problem. Other iterations of that problem may need concepts that are not the Benedict Option, but which nonetheless call for a similar renewal of traditional Christian life.
Faithfulness and Holiness
Ultimately, Ross Douthat’s assessment is best: “Rod is right, even if he’s wrong.” If the Benedict Option is above all about being better Christians, that’s our calling whether or not Western Christian culture is unravelling. That’s why some on both the so-called Catholic “left” and “right” seem to find The Benedict Option at least somewhat valuable. It’s not about taking for the hills and abandoning the poor. Neither is it about embracing the secular culture. It’s about focusing on membership in the Body of Christ; as Dreher says, it’s about being “faithful.” This isn’t a trite thing Dreher has right. Indeed, it is the core issue of Catholic life.
As Douthat says, the Benedict Option is
an invitation to sort of religious ratchet, in which people start from wherever they are and then take one step toward a greater rigor and coherence in the way they marry faith and life.
If every Catholic high school or college were one degree less secularized and worldly; if every Protestant megachurch were one degree more liturgical and theological; if not every Catholic but more Catholics became priests and nuns; if not every Christian family but more Christian families decided to have a third child or a fourth or fifth; if not every young Christian but more young Christians looked at working-class neighborhoods as an important mission field; if Catholics and Protestants alike could imitate even part of Mormonism’s dense networking … all this would be a form of the Benedict Option in action, and both the churches and the common culture would be better for it.
Dreher’s not saying the Benedict Option will save Western culture. There’s no promise it will save your family. He might not be optimistic about the future of the culture, but he hopes for the Church’s endurance. He’s saying that to live the Christian life faithfully, Christians must root out some pressures. He’s saying that good things may happen if each ordinary Catholic works to become a little holier and that if the Church as a whole binds together, it may be a little easier for those ordinary Catholics to be a little holier. And despite my reservations about the Benedict Option’s apparent superfluity, I think the book is intended to be less a revelation and more a kick in the pants so readers get to work doing what they should be doing anyways. I hope readers do much of what Dreher calls for, whether or not they read The Benedict Option so that all of this will have been a moot point.
I’ll leave the last word to Eliot:
Of all that was done in the past, you eat the fruit, either rotten or ripe.
And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.
For every ill deed in the past we suffer the consequence:
For sloth, for avarice, gluttony, neglect of the Word of GOD,
For pride, for lechery, treachery, every act of sin.
And of all that was done that was good, you have the inheritance.
For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when he stands alone on the other side of death,
But here upon earth you have the reward of the good and ill that was done by those who have gone before you.
And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in humble repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers;
And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts as devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it.
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without;
For this is the law of life; and you must remember that while there is time of prosperity
The people will neglect the Temple, and in time of adversity they will decry it.
What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of GOD,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.
Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore;
Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste;
Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,
Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.
-T.S. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock” II