Friday, July 07, 2017

The Benedict Option

by Rod Dreher

So the last few months the phrase "Benedict Option" kept popping up in various blog posts and podcasts I've been consuming. The impression I got was that "The Benedict Option" was a theory that, a) religious conservatives have lost the culture war in America, and b) they should stop trying looking for a political solution and instead just go to ground and nurture their faith in their families and communities. That intrigued me. I was reminded of Harlan Ellison's introduction to Stalking the Nightmare, where the protagonist hides out from an oppressive government and secretly tells stories to pass on his ideals to the next generation. It was a image that's stuck with me through the years, so I figured I'd get in line at the library and check it out to see what exactly Mr. Dreher had in mind.

He starts by laying out the problem: In the U.S., government has become secularly nihilist and the culture has turned against traditional Christians. As a whole, the church in the America is kind of clueless regarding how to respond. Many of us grew up with popular culture telling us we were the good guys. What do we do now that it's telling us the opposite?

Cue The Benedict Option. The Benedict Option is not some new, Purpose DrivenĀ® plan compete with its own merchandise. It's rather a way of life based on the Rule of St. Benedict, started 1500 years ago after the fall of Rome. Mr. Dreher recommends that Christians put their own house in order, to stop being driven by the dominant culture but instead building our lives around things like prayer, work, community, and hospitality. By infusing ourselves and our lives with such values, Christians can at the very least preserve the truly important things in our culture for ourselves and our future generations. Mr. Dreher then goes on to show how the Benedict Option plays out in the areas of politics, the church, the community, education, and our labor. He then calls the reader to "think radically different about the two most powerful forces shaping and driving modern life: sex and technology."

My response to The Benedict Option is mixed. I pretty much agree with Mr. Dreher's assessment of our modern culture and the need to be apart from it. When it comes to the details, some of the ideas he suggests, like homeschooling, I've done for years. Others, however, I have to question. For me, one of the biggest flaws of the book is its dedication to Western Culture. At one point, while speaking on education, he uses the phrase "the canonical Western texts". That raised a red flag for me. I want to live out and preserve Christian values, and I see those coming from the Bible, not some larger collection of Western literature. Certainly, Western Europe has produced many great teachers and theologians that are worth studying. But I wonder if one couldn't also build up a solid Christian community within some other cultural tradition. Would, say, a Confucian Christendom be any less valuable than the Greco-Roman Christendom of our heritage?

My other beef with the book, ironically, was that it didn't seem religious enough. Mr. Dreher speaks a lot about things people can do, things people should do, but not so much about what God is doing. I found chapter 3, where he speaks of the Benedictine Rule and the spirituality of the monastery Norcia, to be delightful and uplifting. But then in chapter 4, "A New Kind of Christian Politics", it's like he changed gears and is all about trying to regain some control in our communities. It's funny--at one point he says, "The deeper our roots in the past, the more secure our anchor against the swift currents of liquid modernity." It occurred to me that of all the stories in the Bible involving boats, I could only think of one that mentioned anchors. And in that tale, Acts chapter 27, they ended up cutting free of them.

I suppose in the end, I was expecting The Benedict Option to be words from a theological perspective but instead found words from a political one. Oh, well. I can't deny they are words worth reading and ideas worth wrestling with.

LibraryThing link


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