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Book Review: Building the Benedict Option by Leah Libresco

October 16th, 2018 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

Ever since Richard Weaver told us that “ideas have consequence,” a certain sort of conservative has relied heavily on a worldview-based analysis of culture, locating the problems that plague us in the sphere of ideas, beginning in the Ivory Tower and then tracing the problem downstream.

This is not necessarily a bad thing to do. Dallas Willard does it in Divine Conspiracy. C. S. Lewis does it in The Abolition of Man. Plenty of other forceful Christian writers have done the same.

That being said, this form of analysis accomplishes some things, but also comes with limitations, particularly when the critiques that this analysis leads to usually end up highlighting problems of social fragmentation, tribalism, and alienation from neighbor. At some point you cannot permanently live in the realm of ideas and you must grapple with the concrete lived experience of the people being studied and, in our day, the lived feelings of isolation, anxiety, and despair that characterize a growing segment of the American people.

Grand social narratives have their place, but eventually you come back to the basic question of what is to be done. One answer can be “out-narrate the people telling a bad story about the world.” But there must be multiple answers that take up different strands of the problems set before us. And the answers here are seldom as grand as the narratives we love to tell.

Leah Libresco’s Building the Benedict Option is a great step in this direction. At minimum, Leah’s book offers practical counsel for anyone—Christian or not—on how to more easily gather people together so that we can all be a little less lonely. Libresco offers tips on how to plan events, what planning software she finds most useful, how to arrange space to make a room or home more welcoming, how to plan meals, what sort of meals to prepare, and so on.

She also frames the problem in helpful ways, asking how we can share the things we already do every day with other people rather than simply adding “do things with other people” as another item on our already overlong to-do lists. In all these ways, the book is quite helpful.

The greater advantage of combining the BenOp branding with Libresco’s feet-on-the-ground approach, however, is that it has the effect of reintroducing many of the critical ideas that Rod Dreher introduced in The Benedict Option and making those ideas a bit more accessible. Rod’s approach to these questions is to vociferously and loudly draw his readers’ attention to the various causes for concern. I have great sympathies with this approach as someone who has used similar tactics more than once in an attempt to rouse a slumbering readership. Call it the Flannery O’Connor method for promoting cultural awareness amongst Christians.

Libresco, whose own social critique overlaps with Rod’s on many of the key issues related to the Benedict Option, is less O’Connor and more C. S. Lewis. It was Lewis, after all, who once advised a person seeking writing advice to avoid telling someone that a thing is “delightful” and, instead, show them something in such a way that they will say “delightful” on their own. Where Rod is urgent, Leah is conversational. There is, of course, a place for both.

One of the biggest problems affecting the BenOp discussion is that too much of it was centered around Rod’s rhetorical style and not nearly enough was focused on the meat of the book. (Andy Crouch made the point in a memorable way when Rod’s book first released.)

This was a point we made at the time, noting that much of what Rod was saying was less over-the-top “alarmism” and more an updated version of what other smart Christians have been saying for nearly a hundred years about the baseline incoherence of our current social order. Rod’s proposals of how to respond were also as common as his critique—rebuilding solidarity amongst Christians in tangible ways, taking catechesis and Bible study more seriously, and so on. In all of this, Rod’s book is simply rehashing what Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, and a host of others before him had been saying for a hundred years. The liberal social order is hostile to Christianity but also, necessarily, hostile to the good life. And that is something that should alarm us and move us to action.

Leah covers all of this ground in her book, but positions it in a different way. She begins with a reflection on what she calls ‘accidental stylites,’ which is an updated version of what she wrote a number of years ago for First Things about ‘sad secular monks.’ She begins the book by noting not only that many Americans are deeply lonely but, crucially, anchoring that loneliness in the physical structures of daily life. So the answer can’t simply be resolved by thinking better thoughts or believing truer things. Material action must accompany this change in thinking.

By pressing the point about loneliness in the book’s opening pages, Leah reframes the entire BenOp discussion in a way that feels fresh and also helps cut to the core questions behind the entire discussion which are less concerned with segregated faith communities and far more to do with how we sustain a culture of life while living in a culture of death.

If there is a limitation to Leah’s book, I think it may well be an unavoidable one given what the book does well. Building the Benedict Option is an immensely practical book. But to speak of practicalities is, largely, to speak in terms familiar to oneself. I cannot speak practically about the challenges of living as a young Catholic in New York City for the simple reason that I have never lived as a young Catholic in New York City. So that necessarily experiential knowledge is outside my experience. Much of Libresco’s work is going to feel fresh to her fellow northeast knowledge workers who are familiar with the challenges of being a young Catholic with a demanding professional life in a big city.

On the other hand, the book will perhaps seem quite foreign to people who do not have that experience. To her credit, Leah is aware of this and tries to accommodate it in the way she frames various issues and questions. She specifically notes that community events should be planned in ways that conform to the interests and needs of the members of the community. So the problem, to the extent that there is one, has less to do with Leah’s blindspots and more to do with the complicated intersection of faith and class in today’s America.

That being said, the more important point is that the conversation about the future of the American church is being shifted in the right direction by books like Leah’s. It’s a good book to pair with Rod’s in that Rod captures some of the fierce urgency of our moment while specifically developing some of the big-picture cultural problems that have led to it. Leah is then able to draw in some other considerations, such as an existential concern with the basic feel of life as a young Christian adult struggling to practice the faith as well as highlighting some of the very meat-and-potatoes questions that are implied in Rod’s book but not always made explicit.

Leah’s book is intended to do a very specific thing: offer a basically hopeful perspective on the possibility of Christian community in today’s western world and to give us some practical ideas on how to realize that life. And by that standard the book is a great success.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).