Author: Rod Dreher
Reviewed by Cathy Duffy
The Benedict Option seems to have stirred up a bit of controversy among Christians. Author Rod Dreher sums up the theme of his book on page 236 in a way that exemplifies the praiseworthiness of the book. I think one paragraph from this page clearly expresses Dreher’s goal in a way that most Christians who are serious about their faith can applaud:
[T]he Benedict Option is a call to undertaking the long and patient work of reclaiming the real world from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life. It is a way of seeing the world and of living in the world that undermines modernity’s big lie: that humans are nothing more than ghosts in a machine, and we are free to adjust its settings in any way we like.
Dreher uses the first two chapters to lay his foundation explaining the present status of Christian faith in the U.S. and how we got here. He runs through an illustrative list of present day problems such as the breakdown of families, rejection of traditional values, fragmented communities, and the advance of the LGBT agenda. He highlights negative trends in religious beliefs, particularly the growing popularity of what researchers call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Dreher calls MTD “mushy pseudoreligion,” explaining that it’s largely about self-esteem, personal happiness, and being nice to other people (p. 10).
Dreher summarizes seven key historical events or movements that brought us to our post-Christian reality. Dreher explains that this is admittedly a very abbreviated way of looking at things, and you might think it a bit contrived that he was able to select one key event from each century from the fourteenth through the twentieth. Even so, those events he selects are worth pondering, and most readers will grant their influence to one degree or another.
The rest of the book presents Dreher’s strategy for bucking the trends of modern society and for retaining and building up a Christian culture in spite of opposition, unpopularity, and even danger. The Rule of St. Benedict and the founding of monasteries by St. Benedict of Nursia play a recurring theme throughout the rest of the book as potential models for modern-day Christians to follow. Dreher is careful to say that he is not advocating total withdrawal from society, and he is not prescribing a one-size-fits-all plan.
He selectively addresses a number of areas in the subsequent chapters: politics, the church itself, the idea of a “Christian village,” education, the world of work, sex, and technology. As I read The Benedict Option, there were numerous points at which I was reminded that Dreher’s theme isn’t a new one. Many conservative Christians, especially among homeschoolers with whom I’m familiar, have been saying much of this since the 1980s even though they were rarely recommending a return to traditional forms of liturgy and prayer, and they were not drawing on the example set by Benedictine monks. Rather than pushing for solutions based on Benedictine monasticism, they chose to focus on a broader approach that included living and modeling Christianity at home and in the world, shielding their children to at least some extent from evil influences and false worldviews, controlling technology’s intrusion into the home, and using alternative forms of education for all levels, even up through college or preparation for the work world.
Perhaps Dreher’s more prescriptive approach will be more effective, but it also makes the Benedict Option more controversial. On page 236, he summarizes:
If Christians today do not stand firm on the rock of sacred order as revealed in our holy tradition–ways of thinking, speaking, and acting that incarnate the Christian in culture and pass it on from generation to generation—we will have nothing to stand on at all. If we don’t take on everyday practices that keep that sacred order present to ourselves, our families, and our communities, we are going to lose it. And if we lose it, we are at great risk of losing sight of the One to whom everything in that sacred order, like a divine treasure map, points.
Drawing from the Rule of St. Benedict, Dreher encourages disciplines such as asceticism and stability that fly in the face of modern life. Asceticism, which Dreher defines as “taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal,” is a form of training that helps us to control our desires and put God’s will above our own. Stability is probably less familiar. This concept has to do with physically staying located in one place, a commitment that generally means developing more deep and lasting relationships with others in your community. Dreher points out, in contrast, that the “rootlessness of contemporary life has frayed community bonds” (p. 67). Concepts such as asceticism and stability are just two among a number of counter-cultural strategies that Dreher recommends to us.
I was particularly interested to read his chapter on education since I write primarily for homeshoolers. I had conflicting reactions to this chapter. Dreher recognizes that education is a linchpin—the formation that takes place in a child’s education often has eternal consequences. The long-term consequences of the separation of children from a Christian culture in their schooling coupled with a lack of education regarding the roots of western civilization have resulted in a dominant secular liberalism. Dreher recognizes the need for Christian formation in education. However, he praises classical Christian education (and the Dorothy Sayer’s model of it) as the only real option to maintain a bastion against the secular culture. While he grants that this type of education might be done through homeschooling, he is much more in favor of regular school models or at least part-time schooling taught by classically-educated teachers.
Since I’ve spent years reviewing classical curriculum, I am aware that classical education appears in many guises, many of which have little in common. Some Christians have hung onto some of the methodology while eschewing the study of pagan authors, i.e., most of the Greek and Roman authors’ works that are considered staples of a classical education by others. Some disagree with Dorothy Sayers’ depiction of the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages as developmental stages that dictate the form of the curriculum. My point is that highlighting only one form of education can be misleading at best since we’re not even sure what that might look like. In addition, since Dreher acknowledges that there might be a real financial cost to families who follow the Benedict Option–costs such as accepting a lower income, the cost of enrollment in a classical Christian school could be prohibitive to many parents embracing the Benedict Option. I am a fan of classical Christian education myself, and I don’t intend to disparage his recommendation. However, I think he should have broadened his coverage of other homeschooling and private schooling options that might be more practical and/or more affordable. In my experience, many homeschoolers are receiving an education through which students learn both their faith and sufficient appreciation for the thought behind western civilization to produce the results Dreher wishes to see.
Moving on from education, I want to mention a few highlights in the chapters on sex and technology. Dreher pleads with churches to not water down their teaching on sexual issues in their attempts to keep young people in the church. He stresses the importance of maintaining normative ideals even on hot-button issues such as the LGBT agenda. He says, ”You cannot avoid the fight, either in your own church or in your own family. To avoid taking sides is to take a side—and not that of the Bible” (p. 204).
In the same vein, he tackles in vitro fertilization (IVF) and its widespread acceptance and use among professing Christians. He criticizes the inconsistency of opposing abortion while accepting IVF, pointing out that probably more than 17 million human beings have been discarded or killed through IVF processes in the U.S. since the technology has been available. Dreher’s challenge is not against IVF alone but against “technological man” who values progress and the ability to choose whatever is useful to himself more than what is right or honoring to God.
The Benedict Option is an important book that speaks to all Christians who are orthodox in their faith, whether they be Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox in their affiliations. Dreher raises many issues that all of us should be talking about and acting upon. He offers many concrete proposals, some of which you might find worth implementing. While I think that those reading this book are likely to find even more ways than Dreher presents to preserve what is good in our culture as well as our faith, I applaud him for setting the challenge before us.