Magazine | April 3, 2017, Issue

Salt and Leaven

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 272 pp., $25)

Rod Dreher, a senior editor of The American Conservative, is one of America’s premier bloggers. An intelligent, gifted writer, he is honest and direct, somewhat prone to the dramatic but also transparent, self-critical, and self-searching. A man of deep Christian beliefs — he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy from Catholicism — he writes from his soul, in a way that builds relationships with his readers. His work is often characterized by earnestness and urgency. He is an evangelist in this sense: He believes that what he loves, others will love, and he will teach them how.

Dreher’s new book is a searing indictment of modernity, American culture, and Christendom. He believes that Christians have been pushed to the margins of American society and that the task ahead is to build up communities of faith that are resilient enough to flourish in an adversary culture, one he time and again refers to as our new Dark Age.

“We in the modern West are living under barbarism,” he writes, “though we do not recognize it. Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes — they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human.” He warns that God “may be delivering a like judgment [the kind of chastisement of nations found in the Old Testament] onto a church and a people grown cold from selfishness, hedonism, and materialism.” Later in the book, Dreher traces the roots of the crisis, centuries in the making, that has left the West “at this blasted heath of atomization, fragmentation, and unbelief.”

For Dreher, the way forward is the Benedict Option, by which he means an approach based on the monastic Rule of Saint Benedict, which provides “a guide to serious and sustained Christian living in a fashion that reorders us interiorly, bringing together what is scattered within our own hearts and orienting it to prayer.”

Dreher traveled to the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Norcia, Italy, the home of 15 monks and their prior, Father Cassian Folsom. The visit had a profound effect on Dreher, who learned from them what life together in Christ can be. They showed him that “traditional Christianity is not dead, and that Truth, Beauty, and Goodness can be found and brought to life again, though doing so will cost you nothing less than everything.”

From the Benedictines, Dreher learned that the way to be strong in the faith in this time of great testing requires of us internal order to control our passions; deep and constant prayer; conceiving of work in a more God-centered way; and making asceticism an important part of ordinary life. It requires greater stability (instead of rootlessness), living in Christian community, and hospitality. The Benedict Option is Dreher’s effort to take what he learned from the Benedictines and equip ordinary believers to do battle with the modern world. “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about,” Father Cassian told Dreher, “they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.”

The Benedict Option does not lack for ambition. It deals with almost every area of life — politics and education, church and community, technology and sexual relations. Nor is Dreher shy about what he thinks needs to be done. He has strong feelings about pretty much everything, including recovering liturgical worship, tightening church discipline, strengthening Christian education, committing to patronize Christian-owned enterprises, fasting from digital media as an ascetic practice, and “getting our hands dirty” with gardening, cooking, and exercising in order to restore our sense of connection with the real world.

That is both the book’s strength and its weakness. Dreher has written a Christian manifesto, filled with practical suggestions, to make real what many other authors would have left vague and formless. Much of what he says is wise and worth considering. Dreher is pushing his fellow Christians to be more devoted in their faith, more countercultural, more radical. He is trying to shake them out of their complacency. “Jesus Christ promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church,” Dreher writes, “but He did not promise that Hell would not prevail against His church in the West. That depends on us, and the choices we make right here, right now.”

Dreher writes with the zeal of the convert, convinced that he sees what most of the rest of us do not, and he’s worried sick that if we don’t follow his counsel, our lives and our culture will be reduced to rubble. This leads him to make rather sweeping statements, e.g., “Because public education in America is neither rightly ordered, nor religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system.” Not some Christians; not many Christians; all Christians. The way is the way.

Elsewhere Dreher writes that “all serious believers must engage in periods of asceticism.” (There’s that word “all” again.) And while saying that it is beyond the scope of his book to tell other Christians how they should celebrate their liturgies while still being faithful to their theological tradition, he does say that “it would do low-church believers well to rethink their dismissal of traditional liturgies as nothing but ‘smells and bells.’ The aroma of incense, the sound of church bells, the glow from candles, and the vivid hues of icons — all these make a powerful, prerational impression on the mind and prepare us for communion with the Lord in Word and Sacrament.” For some, yes; for others, perhaps not so much. Just as Saint Paul wrote that there is one body but many parts, there can be diversity in how people work out their faith based on their life experiences, their predilections, and the gifts they do (and do not) possess. It is one thing to learn from the Benedictines; it is another to universalize their approach.

I don’t mean to imply that Dreher is arrogant; it is more that his enthusiasm to share what has captured his imagination — attitudes and practices he has made his own — is twinned with impatience, a sense that time is running out, that we are all about to go under.

I do think that Dreher’s portrayal of modern American society is too bleak. For all the cultural problems we face and the moral decay we have experienced, several key negative social indicators — the rates of abortion, crime, divorce, teen pregnancy, and even teen sexual activity — have decreased considerably in recent decades. Life in America is as it has always been, very much a mixed bag, with some things getting better, others getting worse, and others staying more or less the same. The Benedict Option, however, has a premise it needs to establish — the new Dark Age is upon us — and the result is that the book, in this area at least, lacks texture and nuance. The picture that’s presented, while hardly false, is hardly balanced.

I found the same thing in Dreher’s portrayal of the modern Church, which is almost entirely negative, including his claim that it “no longer forms souls but caters to selves.” To be sure, many churches in our time, as in the time of the Apostles, are struggling with compromised commitments, with lax discipline and false doctrine, with lives that aren’t transformed and sacrifices that are too minimal. Dreher is right to say that when the world sees us, it often fails to see anything different from nonbelievers.

Yet I have had my life touched by extraordinary acts of grace from people in the Church — pastors and teachers and fellow believers who have helped me in countless ways along the journey. These people, imperfect as they might be, have been “ambassadors for Christ,” in the words of Saint Paul, and they have helped me through hardships and heartaches. I’m far from alone in this, and far from alone in feeling immense gratitude for those who have loved me because they were first loved by God. The Church is a fractured institution, as all earthly ones are; but all across America, through acts of kindness and sacrifice, souls are being formed, homeless people are being fed, crisis-pregnancy centers are being supported, prayer meetings are being held, and baptisms are being performed. Here again, I felt that Dreher, in trying to make his point about the darkness of the age, had not fully captured the reality of life in this age.

But these shortcomings should not obscure the value of The Benedict Option. For one thing, even in areas where I think Dreher overstates things, there is benefit in considering his well-articulated case. I like that he challenges certain settled assumptions. Beyond that, his portraits of people he has met in his pilgrimage of faith are vivid and often moving. He also allows us access to his interior world, including his own struggles, such as maintaining his chastity when he was a young man trying to be faithful in a world that doesn’t prize such things.

Dreher’s chapter on “a new kind of Christian politics” is subtle and needed, especially given the damage done to the Christian witness by prominent Evangelicals who not only supported Donald Trump for president but rhapsodized about him. (“The idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional,” according to Dreher.) He recommends that Christians embrace localism without giving up on important national battles, such as the one to preserve religious liberty, which is the sine qua non of building thriving Christian subcultures. He wants Christians to engage practically and effectively in public life without losing their integrity — which can be a difficult task. “The point is not that we should stop voting or being active in conventional politics,” Dreher writes. “The point, rather, is that this is no longer enough.” Christians need to create a “parallel polis” that serves as a witness and role model to the wider world.

The Benedict Option is also a fearless book. Dreher defends orthodox Christian views on sexuality at a time when such views are increasingly considered benighted. For example, Dreher makes a persuasive case about the moral and spiritual damage caused by pornography, including the ways it rewires the brain. It isn’t fashionable to take stands like this, but Dreher is right to mention it, and he seems indifferent to the criticism that might come his way. He’s wise to argue the affirmative case for a Christian anthropology and what he refers to as “the rightly ordered use of the gift of sexuality,” pointing out that this was among the great distinctives setting apart the early Church from the pagan world.

That said, I found myself feeling that the book was disproportionately focused on sexuality in a way that Jesus, for example, was not. I will grant Dreher that our times are different from those of Jesus, but they’re not that much different — Greco-Roman culture would have not been shocked by much that emerged from the Sexual Revolution — and yet Jesus focused the bulk of his warnings on legalism, self-righteousness, and pride. The main concern of Jesus was not sexual immorality but ecclesiastical moralism. As C. S. Lewis put it: “The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasure of power, of hatred.”

Whatever differences in emphasis and tone I might have with Dreher, however, are minor compared with what I believe are his book’s considerable virtues. Even his lamentations are leavened by hopefulness, his concerns rooted in his desire for more people to live lives of purpose and meaning. And in introducing the world to the monks of Norcia he has given us a gift.

In an increasingly faithless and complacent time, Rod Dreher is asking us to reflect on what true faithfulness means, what it might look like, and the joy that can emerge from it. The Benedict Option is the product of a man whose deepest longing is to serve the Lord he loves.

– Mr. Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

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