Ten Theses on the Benedict Option image

Ten Theses on the Benedict Option

If a book about cultivating Christian virtue hits #7 on the New York Times bestseller list, we should all take notice. That means Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option is worth knowing about. A huge amount has been written about it, especially in the US, but it remains largely unknown in the UK (and in large swathes of the US as well, if the leadership learning community I'm writing this from is anything to go by). So for those who have not read it yet, here's a summary of the Benedict Option, and the response to it, in ten statements.

1. It is difficult to pin down exactly what it is. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why people have got so hot under the collar about it. (Also, lots of people critiquing it admit they haven’t read it, which is weird.) “Strategic withdrawal” is the phrase in the book that comes closest to defining the Benedict Option, but it obviously leaves all sorts of questions (from what? to what? how? why?) unanswered, and the examples of what the Benedict Option looks like in practice vary so widely—from taking full-blown monastic vows to retraining as a plumber—that the essence of the idea can seem elusive.

2. The smartest summary of it is also the shortest, so hats off to Andy Crouch for that.

3. Although there is nothing wrong in principle with writing a book that primarily addresses white Americans, the book misses an opportunity by largely ignoring the experience of the black church under persecution and, in a very different vein, the European church under increasing secularism (with the exception of Benedictine communities within Europe, which I guess are the exceptions that prove the rule). So if you are black, or European, let alone (like a majority of my church) both, The Benedict Option may feel like it has nothing to say to you.

4. Having said that, it still does. The reason is that, despite some of the rhetoric, Dreher is not primarily talking about how to respond to external and explicit persecution from the surrounding culture (as it has been experienced by the black church, for instance); he is talking about how to respond to the loss of Christian identity and fidelity that is taking place within the church. “The world risks careering off a cliff, but we are so captured by the lights and motion of modern life that we don’t recognise the danger.” Because this at times gets entangled with the language of “persecution”, the distinction is not as clear as it might be. But if this focus is borne in mind, the book is far more powerful, prophetic and useful than if it is missed altogether.

5. It is particularly helpful for parents. In reflecting on the way that children are shaped by their peers, and the ways in which parents can and should respond, the book provides some helpful challenges on issues like family prayer, weekly worship when it clashes with the social calendar, technology, hospitality, media and forgiveness. Even the chapter on education, with its insistence that parents should pull their children out of public schools (!), is worth thinking through as a parent, even if (like me) we ultimately disagree with it.

6. There is a sad (and self-refuting) irony to some of the online discussion about it, in which prominent writers have debated the best way to preserve Christian virtue in the face of late modern secularism, but with a mean-spiritedness and a petulance that look more like late modern secularism than Christian virtue.

7. That said, the discussion at Christianity Today, featuring an article from Rod Dreher and four responses from Karen Ellis, John Inazu, David Fitch and Hannah Anderson, is excellent, and would provide an excellent starting point for discussion (as would this from Matthew Loftus). Other helpful articles include those from Trevin Wax and Karen Swallow Prior.

8. Whatever you think of the argument of the book—and I approach the issue slightly differently to Rod Dreher—it has annoyed the right people, and that ought to count for something.

9. The much-discussed “alarmism” in the book, which Dreher is happy to concede and in fact defend, is not so much exaggerated as it is lopsided. R. R. Reno makes a convincing case that it is simplistically negative about contemporary Western culture (“Our times are like every other historical epoch between Christ’s ascension into heaven and his return in glory: a complicated combination of good and bad trends”), largely omitting the many positive features of our society (“Ancient Rome would not have anguished over countless migrants drowning in the Mediterranean”), and failing to note that the same forces which are undermining Christian institutions are undermining secular ones as well, and arguably more so (“this false gospel weakens secular institutions much more than religious ones. People still join churches. They’ve stopped joining Masonic lodges, political parties, and bowling teams.”) Paul Baumann’s review in Commonweal points out that although the sexual revolution presents a challenge to Christian fidelity, it is hardly a challenge of unique and unprecedented magnitude (“Detachers witnessed the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and lived in an increasingly militarized country under the constant shadow of nuclear Armageddon. Perhaps even more pertinently, they refused to be taken in by the lie that a nation that worships the rich and despises the poor can call itself Christian. It seems to me that these are all plausible, even compelling, reasons to separate oneself from American society, and try to carve out a place to live faithful Gospel lives. Does same-sex marriage pose a comparable risk?”) In other words, to use this word for the first and probably last time on this blog: snafu.

10. Few people see more clearly than Dreher that the right answer to the “progressive Christian” line on sex—effectively, that you can have both the sexual revolution and Christianity, both Asherah and Yahweh, both Venus and Jesus—is an unapologetic no you can’t. He may apply that point in ways that would make many of us wince (including me, in places), but he’s worth reading on it nonetheless.

It’s an important discussion. You may want to read the book for yourself.

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