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013_About-St_Benedicts_014For several years now, Rod Dreher, a writer and friend whose books I've enjoyed, has advocated "The Benedict Option" as a strategy for faithful Christians in a post-Christian world. This month, Dreher's new book defines the term and lays out his strategy.

What Is the Benedict Option?

The Benedict Option builds on the last sentence of Alisdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, in which the famous philosopher, after outlining all the ways in which mainstream society has reached a point of no return in its trajectory toward the dissolution of ancient paths of virtue, says this:

"What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another--doubtless very different--St. Benedict."

MacIntyre wrote those words 36 years ago. If in 1981 MacIntyre saw our civilization in the late afternoon hours drawing toward the sunset, Dreher today sees our society fading into dusk. For this reason, it's time for Christians to make sure that no matter how dark it gets, our light mustn't go out.

What is the way forward for a civilization in crisis? Dreher lays out the plan:

"If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and practice. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs." (3)

The floodwaters of cultural change and anti-Christian morality are rising, and now is the time to stop fighting the flood by piling up sandbags and instead start building an ark that will make it possible for us to deal with the flood's aftermath.

"Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation." (12)

For Christians, this means we need to remember who we are before we can recommit to being who we must be. So, Dreher says, it's time for a strategic withdrawal with the purpose of cultivating habits and practices that will fortify our faith and hope.

"If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training--just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have." (19)

That last sentence is key to the Benedict Option. If we don't have vibrant Christian convictions and practices, then our churches will fail to stand out in the world. We cannot offer to the world what we do not possess.

"Christians often talk about 'reaching the culture' without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been coopted by the secular culture they wish to evangelize." (102)

A New (Old) Strategy

41QY+zZAzfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Dreher uses the Rule of Benedict and the monastic tradition of the sixth century as a prototype for how Christians should consider faithfulness in this era. No, he doesn't recommend we all become monks and move into the desert. Instead, he wants us to recognize the importance of training our hearts to love the right things, of embracing the spiritual disciplines and habits of the ancient church, and of revisiting the church's liturgies and doctrinal preparation.

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.

That's why the best parts of the Benedict Option are not about withdrawal, but about culture-building. He wants to see the church flourish from the margins, as a robust witness to Christian truth that will last through difficult times. This reminds me of my time serving in Baptist churches that had weathered the storm of Communism in Romania. They were against the world for the good of the world.

"The parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society." (94)

A Bad Posture

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 to an overly defensive posture toward the world.

Consider the metaphors used throughout the book: a thousand-year flood, the most serious crisis since the fall of the Roman empire, "we've lost on every front." Waterloo. The dark age to come. The coming storm. An earthquake. Babylon. When Dreher recommends we follow the example of monks who literally headed for the hills, I worry that the dire warnings in this book will cultivate a posture that is much too defensive, a fatalistic view of society that breeds long-term cultural pessimism.

Progressives always think they know the way the world is going, and that arc is always bending toward justice. They're often wrong. Conservatives sometimes think they know the where the world is headed, that things are inevitably getting worse. They're often wrong, too. A better approach is that of Chesterton, who said in the 1930s in the years before WWII, "the world is what the saints and prophets saw it was; it is not merely getting better or merely getting worse; there is one thing that the world does; it wobbles."

We sense the world wobbling a little more than usual these days, but that should lead us to a recommitment to Christian mission. The fundamental posture of the Christian should be missionary, not monastic.

To be clear, Dreher is not recommending passivity in light of cultural challenges. His focus is on building and rebuilding, shoring up the foundations. At times, he uses the metaphor of "the shire" to make this point, where we are able to display to the world a new vision of human flourishing, similar to the homeland of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings.

I love the image of the shire and the need for Christians to have a vision of culture-creation in our churches and communities. That kind of culture-cultivation is what appeals most to me in Dreher's proposal.

But the storyline of The Lord of the Rings focused on a mission. Someone has to take on Mordor and the orcs with the humble faith that goodness will win out in the end, right? "Seceding from the cultural mainstream," as Dreher advises, would not preserve the Shire; courage in the face of unbeatable odds was necessary.

Likewise, the image in Scripture of the church is not a fortress besieged by barbarians, but of 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 anything conservative Christians face today.

That's not to say that the purity and fortitude of local congregations should be neglected. Dreher is right here. What's the point of being a city on a hill if there's no light in the city?

So, while I affirm Dreher's strategy for the strengthening of local Christian communities, I question the defensive posture that coincides with it. Christian mission is oriented toward winning a spiritual battle, not surviving a spiritual siege.

[For a symposium of Christian thinkers responding to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, click here.]

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9 thoughts on “The Benedict Option: Good Strategy, Bad Posture”

  1. LReal says:

    Thanks for the review, Trevin! My copy of The Benedict Option should arrive this week, so I will not comment directly on the book itself until I read it. However, my primary observation (as a seasoned, 50 something, evangelical) to this and other reviewers’ reaction to the book is that a person’s age and view of eschatology will be a big factor in how he/she responds to it. My personal view of the evangelical american church (all of it, regardless of the denominational, geographic, racial etc… categories) is that it is extremely spiritually immature and weak. Most evangelical churches are nowhere near the needed desperation point to even consider the wisdom of pursuing the Benedict Option. If Dreher is advocating a “time away” like Moses and Paul to rediscover our spiritual strength and community before we can hope to be on the offensive, then I wholeheartedly agree.

    I hope I am not jaundiced by my age, but Trevor I believe you are overly optimistic about the current american church’s ability to be on the spiritual offensive in any meaningful way. It appears to me (my eschatology shows here) that Jesus words in Matthew 24 that there will be a simultaneous “apostasy” and “revival” just prior to His coming gives us insight into the likely persecution coming to all genuine believers in the west.

  2. Ryan Booth says:

    I don’t worry that Dreher’s outlook will produce a “much too defensive, a fatalistic view of society.” I think Dreher’s seeming fatalism should be interpreted instead as what will happen if we don’t change. I think he’s correct that American Christianity will die out if we fail to deepen our spiritual practices and show the world a different Way—if we fail to shine. When Jonah prophesied “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” that did not preclude the possibility of God’s mercy, but it did mean the end of Nineveh if the people did not repent.

    If the American church doesn’t repent of its complacency, materialism, consumerism, and failure to disciple our young, we likewise cannot expect American Christianity to have much of a future. I see The Benedict Option as a prophetic voice that’s warning the Church in the West of the danger of a failure to repent, even if Dreher doesn’t frame it that way.

  3. Meg I says:

    Trevin, I ordered the book before reading this. “Sigh” Guess I should read it for myself and draw my own conclusions but I sure respect the ones you think through and communicate. Your blog recently on “Ideas” and why they matter, has been one I refer to constantly. Keep up the good work for the Kingdom and for people such as I who can be “lazy thinkers.”

  4. Doug says:

    It was no accident that our colonies were planted by a Christianity totally absent the pessimistic, defeatist vision possessed at large by the American church of today. The modern church’s outlook starkly contrasts with the depictions of Christ that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the militant expansion of His Church; the small seed that would ultimately grow into a large tree; the little stone of Daniel that would grow into a mountain and fill the whole earth. If we would recover a nation we must first get over our national obsession with obscure passages that sell sensational books and movies. The fact that commentators of old mostly stayed away from the Revelation, while commentators can be found everywhere nowadays should raise a flag: fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The American Church must escape from her escapist mentality and recover the vision of our LORD. We must stop singing, “Take this world and give me Jesus. This is not where I belong.”

  5. David Miller says:

    I haven’t read the book yet, but heard Mr. Dreher’s conversation on the Briefing with Dr. Mohler, which I would recommend. Appreciate your thoughts, Mr. Wax. Looking forward to reading the book.

  6. Curt Day says:

    There is something else we should note about Dreher’s option. That because, according to him, today’s culture no longer recognizes any degree of Christian privilege and supremacy, it can only possess threats to our faith while it has nothing positive to offer. Thus, we must, according to Dreher, withdraw from culture and society, whether that withdrawal entails a physical separation or not, and become immersed into our church communities. But what Martin Luther King Jr. said about the West in his protest against Vietnam applies directly to Dreher’s thinking here:

    The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just

    For it seems that Dreher’s option is built on the assumption that it is Christianity, rather than the West, that possesses this arrogance of feeling, but Dreher, unlike King, does not condemn such a feeling.

    My fear when I see the promotion of Dreher’s option is that we Christians become even more insular than how we are now. For while wanting the world to listen to us, too many of us reject the world wanting to return the favor. And the world does have some pertinent information for us to learn. Some of that information revolves around how it perceives us and our actions. But the more insular we become, the more deaf we are to truths that the world can tell us.

  7. I would ask critics of the Benedict Option to consider that we in the West have long enjoyed a privileged position and to ask just how much that has led to us to think we will be immune to the hatred, ostracism and exclusion that the persecuted church down through the ages (and currently around the world) has had to endure.

    The comment was made above that the church of previous ages was far more optimistic and that interest in eschatology, particularly the end of all things, has led to an ‘escapist’ mentality. I would argue that actually what is needed is a pilgrim mentality that realizes that this indeed isn’t our home, that we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, that we are indeed moving from a position as the church militant to the church triumphant, not because we commandeer a takeover of the place in which we are passing but because we will one day rule and reign with the One who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords and who alone has the right to reign.

    1. Rebecca J says:

      I appreciate this comment. As I reflected on this article and Benedict’s practice of spirituality (well, all the monks and Abbas of the faith), they recognized their position on earth as temporary, and almost militant: they went into their cells to do war with demons.

      I feel like we are more in a City of Gondor situation, not the Shire. The Shire was sheltered by Gandalf and the Rangers (Aragorn and his brothers), therefore they didn’t have to deal with the evil realities of what was beyond Shire boundaries. In the Return of the King, the Shire was actually influenced by the outside world and ended up becoming overtaken by evil (in the books, the movies didn’t acknowledge Tolkein’s original ending.) However, Gondor was at the very doorstep of evil and had to constantly be prepared for war, while living a normal life.

      I believe that Christians need to live in a city of Gondor: a haven of hope and security for the weary and downtrodden. However, Gondor still had Boromir and Faramir: two soldiers who knew battle and DID battle for good, for light. They recognized the evil that was around them, but didn’t cower in fear or go forward unprepared for war. They trained, they encouraged their men and fought.

      That’s the way the monks and desert fathers lived: as men who wanted to do battle through the power of prayer and living in a minimalist life. They recognized the “siege” of spiritual evil, but still lived in the reality that they were conquerors in the faith with Christ. Through the spiritual disciplines, prayer, meeting together, scripture reading, and working, Benedict’s monks were training themselves to run the good race and be soldiers for Christ.

      I’m 26, and I see my generation being either way pumped up for God, but without roots, or they are completely falling away from the church because its not answering the needs they have emotionally and spiritually. My prayer is that leaders would be able to start cultivating and spreading seed far and wide for spiritual disciplines and recognize where soldiers need to be conditioned for the ongoing health of the church.

    2. Doug says:

      Kofi — Yes, we will “one day rule and reign with the One who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” That day is today! Christ is NOW — not sometime in the future — King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And we will always reign with Him…ON PLANET EARTH! We are not illegal aliens; the unbelieving world is. The meek shall inherit the earth!

      CS Lewis once said, “A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it; and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian.”

      Lewis failed to see how eschatology could derail a Christian’s outlook, such that he thinks it “Christian” to abandon the creation that Christ came to restore.

      We must recover Christian hope.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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