Fair Warning: This is long. But I’ve tried to break it up with some header tags that make it easy to scan on an initial read. The review basically falls into three parts: The paragraphs between “Introduction” and “What is Rod’s strategy…” concern the general response to the book. From “What is Rod’s strategy…” to “Three Observations,” is a summary of the book. I have taken some pains to summarize it because the book has been billed as a kind of culture war manual when really it is something much simpler than that. Finally, from “Three Observations” to the end of the post is my critical interaction with Rod’s book. Hopefully this helps make a long post a bit easier to navigate and helps readers identify what parts they wish to read and what parts they can safely skim or skip.

Introduction

Though this line risks over-simplifying complex debates, one might argue that much of the furor over Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is a matter of critics simply not reading well. As Collin Hansen noted in his brief summary for The Gospel Coalition, the book’s subtitle is actually rather modest: “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” strategy. Some of Rod’s critics, primarily those who agree that we are in a post-Christian nation but do not agree with his proposals, would do well to simply take note of the modest claim in the subtitle and move along.

In other cases, the critics’ dispute with Rod is not over his particular strategy but over his diagnosis of our nation, namely that ours is a post-Christian nation. Some of these critics, like Jamie Smith and my friend Katelyn Beaty, simply think that American culture is not as far gone as Rod suggests. They might be naive, but that is the worst thing they can be accused of, I think. Other critics in this vein are simply sub-Christian in their ethics and thus do not seem to find any contradiction between Christianity and the norms passed down by the sexual revolution, as in the case with Rachel Held Evans.1

The former group should be engaged with because they are committed to orthodoxy and, at their best, they will help correct the more morose amongst us by reminding us of the hope of the Gospel and the fact that, as Ross Douthat has said, Christianity is no stranger to unexpected resurrection. We have much to learn from this group, even if I do wish Smith and Beaty had engaged with Dreher more carefully as did Liz Bruenig in her excellent review of the book for Democracy Journal.

The latter group, on the other hand, is almost certainly one that should be ignored as it is hard to imagine having profitable discussions with people who cannot see any obvious contradictions between the moral law as taught by Christianity and the sexual identitarianism extolled by modern-day sexual revolutionaries.

But we will not spend any more time in this review considering the question of whether or not our nation is post-Christian. In the first place, that question is somewhat beside the point as I argued last Friday. In the second place, the answer is complex but in significant ways is that we absolutely are a post-Christian nation, as Brad East helpfully explained yesterday.

What we will do, instead, is describe the argument as Rod actually makes it in the book and then continue to three key notes on the book which exist somewhere between “observation” and “criticism.”

What is Rod’s strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation?

The first point that needs to be made about the book is that it is about far more than just politics or sexuality, despite the fact that many of the reviews so far have focused on those points. Rather, the book is organized around eight key values that Rod believes are vital for the future of the church. They are mostly cribbed from the Rule of St. Benedict, although Rod isn’t terribly strict about this and certainly draws on more than just Benedict’s rule in explaining what these values look like in practice. Here are the eight values:

  • Order
  • Prayer
  • Work
  • Asceticism
  • Stability
  • Community
  • Hospitality
  • Balance

Rightly understood, these values actually reinforce each other and form something of a single coherent way of life. To take one example, healthy prayer lives, as any Christian who has one will tell you, involve some sort of order or structure to them. They are not haphazard things. Likewise, stability is what enables community to exist and makes hospitality possible, which must then be understood and practiced in a balanced, disciplined way.

To get more specific, let’s say a bit more about each of these eight values.

Order

Order means that our lives must have some structure and organization to them if we are to mature in the Christ life. Oddly enough, much of what Rod says here overlaps closely with Jamie Smith’s own work in his cultural liturgies series. The following excerpt could easily come from Smith himself:

A man who wants to get in shape and has read the best bodybuilding books will get nowhere unless he applies that knowledge in eating healthy food and working out daily. That takes sustained willpower. In time, if he’s faithful to the practices necessary to achieve his goal, the man will start to love eating well and exercising so much that he is not pushed toward doing so by willpower but rather drawn to it by love. He will have trained his heart to desire the good.

So too with the spiritual life. Right belief (orthodoxy) is essential, but holding the correct doctrines in your mind does you little good if your heart—the seat of the will—remains unconverted. That requires putting those right beliefs into action through right practice (orthopraxy), which over time achieves the goal Paul set for Timothy when he commanded him to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7).

Allow me a short excursus at this point: When hauled before the Diet of Worms to give an answer for his beliefs, Martin Luther said at one point that he could not denounce all his works because many of them explain the faith in simple, useful terms so well that even his opponents granted that they were useful.

I thought of that anecdote a number of times while reading Rod’s book. The vast majority of the book is much more the sort of thing excerpted above rather than extended diatribes about politics or sexuality. Rod’s prevailing concern in this book is not with either of those topics, but with a more simple, prosaic question: Where do saints come from and how do we make more of them?

As such, much of the book is simply good counsel in Christian piety and discipline. That advice begins with his emphasis upon order, a point that evangelicals are beginning to understand better, thanks in no small part to Dr. Smith’s fine books, but on which we still have much to learn.

Prayer

When Rod speaks of prayer, he doesn’t simply mean what many evangelicals think of when they hear “prayer,” which is a kind of extemporaneous speaking to God. Rod’s definition doesn’t exclude that, certainly, but it is more all-encompassing:

For the monks, prayer is not simply words they speak. Each monk spends several hours daily doing lectio divina, a Benedictine method of Scripture study that involves reading a Scripture passage, meditating on it, praying about it, and finally contemplating its meaning for the soul.

The idea is not simply to study the Bible as a scholar would but rather to encounter it as God speaking directly to the individual. In this sense, a monk immersing himself in Scripture, as directed by the Rule, is carrying out a form of prayer. …

When one advances in prayer, said Father Basil, one comes to understand that prayer is not so much about asking God for things as about simply being in his presence.

Again, this is simply good Christian counsel: Live your life with the knowledge that you live ever before the face of God. Immerse yourself in the study of the Scripture. Learn to delight in God himself rather than in asking him for things or seeing him as a means to an end.

Work

Following up on prayer, Rod notes that he is not calling for a purely contemplative life removed from worldly concerns. We need meaningful work to do and we need to relate that work to our chief end, which is to know God.

Everything is a gift from God and is meant to be treated as sacred. Every human thought and act is to be centered on and directed to God and to be united in Him and to Him. And we men and women are participants in God’s unfolding Creation, by ordering the world according to His will.

Seen this way, labor takes on a new dimension. For the Christian, the work has sacramental value.

“Creation gives praise to God. We give praise to God through Creation, through the material world, and into our areas of work,” explained Father Martin Bernhard, thirty-two. “Any time we take something neutral, something material, and we make something out of it for the sake of giving glory to God, it becomes sacramental, it becomes a channel of grace.”

There is some theological quibbling I wish to do with the language in the above section, but on a basic level this is, again, all basic Christian wisdom as it pertains to our work. It’s not that different from the sort of thinking you’d run into in any of the recently published books that are part of the broader faith and work movement, such as Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor or Steven Garber’s Visions of Vocation.

Asceticism

This point is where some of Rod’s ignorance of evangelicalism manifests itself, as most evangelicals I know get a bit nervous when someone starts talking about “asceticism.” Often when we hear this word our minds go to things which we rightly look upon with some reservation, such as prescribed ecclesial fasts or more extreme forms of penance of the sort that drove Luther mad in the 16th century. But that isn’t what Rod is talking about at all, actually. Really all he is talking about is “discipline” and, in particular, discipline as applied to the bodily appetites. This, of course, is a thing that evangelicals would do well to study more closely as our struggles with both gluttony and lust are fairly well-established. Here is Rod:

Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, meaning “training.” The life prescribed by the rule is thoroughly ascetic. Monks fast regularly, live simply, refuse comfort, and abide by the strict rules of the monastery. This is not a matter of earning spiritual merit. Rather, the monk knows the human heart and how its passions must be reined in through disciplined living. Asceticism is an antidote to the poison of self-centeredness common in our culture, which teaches us that satisfying our own desires is the key to the good life. The ascetic knows that true happiness can only be found by living in harmony with the will of God, and ascetical practices train body and soul to put God above self.

Again, nothing about this should be that controversial or foreign to anyone who has been part of a healthy church for any appreciable length of time. This, again, is just garden-variety Christian piety.

Stability

By “stability” Rod means the very concrete virtue of staying in one place long enough to develop strong roots there. This practice can be very difficult for some in our hyper-mobile age, but a significant part of the discipline and order we have already discussed is learning to belong to a single place, to be there long enough to begin to submit yourself to its life, to learn what the place needs, and to give yourself toward the good of the place. Here is Rod:

If you are going to put down spiritual roots, taught Benedict, you need to stay in one place long enough for them to go deep. The Rule requires monks to take a vow of “stability”—meaning that barring unusual circumstances, including being sent out as a missionary, the monk will remain for the rest of his life in the monastery where he took his vows. …

Father Martin said that those who think stability is meant to hold you back, and to stifle personal and spiritual growth, are missing the hidden value in the commitment to stability. It anchors you and gives you the freedom that comes from not being subject to the wind, the waves, and the currents of daily life. It creates the ordered conditions in which the soul’s internal pilgrimage toward holiness becomes possible.

Community

The value of community relates closely to that of stability. Indeed, the former follows naturally from the latter. If you are in a single place long enough to actually know it, to know what it looks like when it is healthy and what it looks like when it is diseased, then you will also develop strong relational ties to the other members of that place. This is essential because much of Christian piety is concerned with loving neighbor, something we are only able to do well if we know our neighbors.

Father Basil says that in his years as a monk, he has come to have a much clearer understanding of what it means to live as the Body of Christ: the community as an organic whole, united in Christ, with each man committed in love to doing his own part to strengthen the whole.

“God has distributed his graces in such a way that we really need each other,” said the priest. “Certainly there’s the old man within me that craves individualism, but the more I live in community, the more I see that you can’t have it and be faithful, or fully human.”

In his travels tending to monastery affairs, Father Martin, who is its business manager, sees a vacancy in the faces of many people he encounters. They seem so anxious, so unsettled, so uncertain. The monk believes this is the result of loneliness, isolation, and the lack of deep and life-giving communal bonds. When the light in most people’s faces comes from the glow of a laptop, the smartphone, or the television screen, we are living in a Dark Age, he said.

“They are missing that fundamental light meant to shine forth in a human person through social interaction,” he said. “Love can only come from that. Without real contact with other human persons, there is no love. We’ve never seen a Dark Age like this one.

Though Rod leans on Benedictine monks to make this point, there is absolutely nothing here that would conflict with the sorts of things I was told and experienced personally during my time as a L’Abri student, which remains one of the most cherished experiences of community I have ever been blessed to have. The shared routine and that routine’s unyielding commitment to busyness and distractions meant that I knew my fellow L’Abri students well and that we enjoyed the beautiful gift of leisurely conversation, a thing that many of us miss as part of our ordinary lives. One significant part of the Benedict Option is recovering the art of conversation and the space that allows for conversation to happen.

Hospitality

Again, one value tends to flow into another: The concern with community naturally prompts a need for hospitality as hospitality is the means by which new members are brought into the community. This, again, is something of a well duh idea, but it’s important to note Rod’s emphasis on hospitality for two reasons: First, again, Rod is in many ways simply calling for the church to be the church. Second, Rod’s emphasis on hospitality complicates the criticism that faults him for counseling withdrawal from the world.

Rather than erring on the side of caution, though, Father Benedict believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise. “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in.”

The power of popular culture is so overwhelming that faithful orthodox Christians often feel the need to retreat behind defensive lines. But Brother Ignatius, at age fifty-one, warned that Christians must not become so anxious and fearful that they cease to share the Good news, in word and deed, with a world held captive by hatred and darkness.

This reminded me of L’Abri. In one of his books, Francis Schaeffer tells his readers that if they are serious about the practice of hospitality than they should have the experience of giving up their bed to a young homeless mother who needs a place to stay. The principle Schaeffer is stating in that excerpt is undoubtedly right and, again, is entirely in keeping with the counsel Rod gives here.

We should note that everything said above massively complicates the complaint that Rod is counseling a kind of spiritual isolationism. One of the core values of his project is hospitality to the outsider. You might quibble with how he defines that, but if you are being honest you cannot simply say that Rod does not care about evangelism, has no regard for the Great Commission, or is unconcerned about protecting disadvantaged people. He is calling Christians to embrace the virtue of hospitality. If the church actually did that en masse I can only imagine what the consequences would be both for our evangelization efforts and for the health of our local places.

Balance

Finally, the last virtue Rod commends is balance. One challenge with hospitality is that you can be so hospitable that you end up neglecting your more immediate duties. As much as I admire them, this seems to have happened to the Schaeffers with their son Franky at L’Abri. Their other girls were teenagers when they started L’Abri, but Franky was still quite young and, by several accounts I’ve heard, should have had more attention from his parents than he often did. (None of this excuses Franky’s deplorable treatment of his parents, of course, but it does give a context for it.) We cannot be so “hospitable” that the demands of hospitality cause us to neglect more immediate and primary duties. This is Rod’s point in talking about balance.

Balance, then—or put another way, prudence, mercy, and good judgment—is key to governing the life of a Christian community. So too is keeping the necessities of daily monastic living—eating, sleeping, praying, working, reading—in harmonious relationship, so that none overtakes a monk’s life and all are integrated into a healthy whole.

Summary Conclusion

I have taken a fair amount of time and quoted extensively from the book in this section for a simple reason: In many ways, this book is something like a modern-day Enchiridion, which is a Latin term meaning a kind of small handbook for tutoring its readers in a given topic. Augustine wrote an Enchiridion as did Erasmus. That is all The Benedict Option is. It is an accessible, simply written book full of sound, prudent counsel in how to cultivate the Christ life in oneself and to help grow Christian community in one’s home place.

Three Observations

All that being said, I wanted to make three notes on the book that probably fall somewhere between “observation” and “criticism.” They are as follows.

First, the book is a little bit erratic and sometimes tries to do too much.

There are three different things I see Rod doing in the book:

  • outlining the values necessary for Christian community in a post-Christian context
  • reporting on how different successful Christian communities are thinking about these issues and addressing them in their daily life
  • diagnosing the historical and theological issues that have led to our post-Christian moment.

The overwhelming feel of the book is pietistic and journalistic, fitting with the first two bullet points above. Thus all the things I say above.

That said, there are parts of the book that move into the third area. These sections are the weakest of the book. The chapter on the roots of the crisis is especially weak, as Rod leans far too heavily on the arguments that Dr. Brad Gregory made in his Unintended Reformation, arguments which quickly fall apart on a closer reading of the history and especially a closer interaction with the primary sources of the Reformation.

Relatedly, one of the things that came up in Bruenig’s review of Rod’s book is that in the book Rod is talking about the American church’s interaction with politics as a journalist while Liz is reviewing his book as a political theologian. The problem plays out like this:

Rod: The American church needs to stop looking to politics as its salvation.
Liz: The American church needs to take up the hard but lofty calling of working through politics to advance the common good. Why would you call us to neglect that?

The issue is that Rod is thinking more sociologically as he writes. He is looking at the recent history of American Christianity and especially evangelical interaction with politics. (But I suspect he is also thinking of Neuhaus and the 1990s- early 2000s-era New York Catholic scene in which he spent the early years of his Christian life.) These people often did look to politics as a kind of salvation for the church and he is entirely correct in telling American Christians to not do that.

Liz, on the other hand, is thinking theologically rather than sociologically. She is concerned with principles of Christian political involvement and specifically with how Christians can work in politics to advance the common good. It is, in other words, an entirely different concern than the one Rod is addressing. However, because both of them are, in some way, talking about the church’s relationship to politics it can seem like they are disagreeing. But I’m not sure how much they are disagreeing and how much they are simply talking past each other.

Second, the book needs to be understood as the beginning of a conversation rather than the final word.

We are almost certainly entering a new moment in the history of the western church. Old Europe is being transformed before our eyes. Even prior to the current transformation, much of the old European church had been significantly marginalized as the traditional centers of western Christianity secularized. The United States, meanwhile, is now undergoing a similar secularization, as demographic trends amongst millennials make clear. This will force American Christians to rethink their relationship to their home places and cultivate new resources to nurture and sustain their life. Rod’s book is immensely helpful on those points.

That said, his book has limitations. As noted above, Rod is a journalist professionally and a lay Christian who has been in the church for, I believe, around 20 years. As such, he is at his best in telling stories and outlining the basics of Christian piety and healthy Christian communal practices. But there are other areas where he is weaker.

Rusty Reno’s book helps provide a firmer theoretical foundation for Christian community, particularly in his excellent chapter on solidarity. Dr. Anthony Esolen’s book does a better job of describing the concrete goods we want to regain. Archbishop Chaput’s book, meanwhile, is more hopeful in its outlook and its historical critique is more careful than Rod’s.

Thinking more historically, C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man remains unparalleled as a diagnosis of the core philosophical problems that define our day. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings remain the definitive imaginative treatments of our current malaise. Christopher Dawson’s work remains the best I have seen on the history leading up to our crisis, although I predictably find his reading of the Reformation to be very bad and uncharacteristically sloppy.

But, of course, the history here makes the point clear: The church has a perennial need to retrieve right doctrine for the present day in order to live faithfully in its current moment. This is why we need books like Rod’s as well as Archbishop Chaput’s and those by Drs. Reno and Esolen. Each is valuable in its own way. It is also why we need to continue to consider these questions in the future, even if we perhaps don’t frame all of the discussion around the specific idea of “the Benedict Option.” As Hansen noted in his summary at TGC, even if you don’t like Rod’s strategy, the fact remains that every Christian community needs strategy for the coming days.

Third, the success of that conversation will depend upon our ability to trust and assume the best of one another in the midst of disagreement.

I am by nature a combative person, as I think is Rod. I suspect part of the reason we get on as well as we do is that in-person we are both very laid back and are fairly accommodating, but in our intellectual work we are both more combative because we are able to make connections between the things we observe culturally and the daily experience of ordinary Christians. At times, this combativeness is appropriate because it makes it easier for us to act courageously to oppose those who would threaten the church.

At times, however, I think this same combative tone can weaken our position with other Christians who we need to persuade or at least be able to discuss things with productively. Here two separate things have been instructive to me lately.

First, our site’s founder, Matthew Lee Anderson, wrote an exemplary piece on the pro-life movement for Vox.com. He has followed that piece up with some excellent interactions with his pro-choice critics that I would heartily commend to you. Matt’s example in these pieces is one that I would commend to any Christian intellectual looking to do worthwhile work: He is unyielding on key principles, assumes the best of his critics until proven wrong, and makes the case in a positive, hopeful, empathetic way. We need more of this.

Second, I have been thinking a lot about what Matthew Loftus said in his latest blog post on the issue which he ran over on his personal blog. This is one of the key sections:

In order to share the truth of God’s Word with other people and emphasize the dangers of modern heresies, there is no need to talk about “World War T” or the “tip of the spear at our throats”. In fact, this sort of rhetoric is only compelling to people who already agree with you on virtually everything and I think that pruning it back is part of the prudence of missiology. If you feel like people cannot comprehend you, then you need to talk differently if you want to get your message across. It is what every cross-cultural missionary must learn to do.

This is a better version of the concern I think Dr. Smith was trying to raise in his overly simple Washington Post piece.

What my dream going forward is that the small-o orthodox Christians of the western world would have a great conversation about these topics. I hope that we can give each other the benefit of the doubt, engage in vigorous (and sometimes forceful) debate, and sharpen each other as we think about the shape of Christian practice in our home places in the years to come. Speaking for myself, I think I have struggled to do this well at times over the past year and I am now trying to think through how my own rhetoric needs to shift in order to better do the things I have just described.

I also worry that Rod’s more aggressive moments in his own writing might similarly undermine our ability to have the kind of fruitful discussions I am calling for. Personally, I am more-or-less in agreement with Rod’s diagnosis of our current moment and think the fears behind his “spear at the tip of our throats” language are almost certainly valid. Here at Mere O we have been on record for some time in saying that the post-evangelical left is almost certainly going to turn on the orthodox church in a significant way in the near future, which is precisely what Rod predicted in his recent response to Rachel Held Evans. That said, I think if he can find less loaded ways of making similar points, he will find a wider audience.

This brings me back to the opening of this now almost certainly over-long review. In the lede I distinguished between two sorts of critics of the basic premises of Rod’s book. On the one hand, I said, there are orthodox Christians who disagree with Rod’s diagnosis but who are worth engaging because our basic goals and ambitions are the same. On the other, I said there are critics who we ought to just ignore because our foundational values and beliefs are so different that we can’t really do productive work together.

The challenge here is that the lines between these two groups are not always clear. Jamie Smith and Katelyn Beaty are two people whose core principles and theological orthodoxy I trust and so I put them both in the former category. Someone like Rachel Held Evans obviously belongs in the latter category. But our churches are full of people whose position is not going to be nearly so obvious. Indeed, many of them probably are in the first group right now but could easily drift into the second if those orthodox believers around them conduct themselves badly.

There are multiple ways in which we could conduct ourselves badly, of course. A desire to preserve unity at the cost of clarity and an unwillingness to take a stance is not a solution and, in fact, will probably cause as many to drift as will a lack of charity and restraint in our rhetoric. Being in the PCA, this is the concern that occupies my mind more as it seems the greater danger in my immediate ecclesial context. I suspect that it is also the greater danger in most Catholic dioceses and many non-denominational evangelical churches.

Even so, a lack of charity and restraint in our rhetoric will lead some who might otherwise be persuadable to dismiss us. That seems the greater danger in the Southern Baptist Convention, if my read of things is accurate. It is also the greater danger in many reformed microdenominations such as the OPC and CREC, I strongly suspect.

So my final note on Rod’s book is that we must think and pray very carefully about that virtue of balance that he develops in the book. And one of the places where we must exercise that virtue is in our own rhetoric as we discuss these issues with our fellow Christians and with those curious onlookers who might be persuaded to follow Christ but who are also currently more sensitive to excessively harsh ways of speaking about our neighbors. If the BenOp conversation is going to move forward in helpful ways, then we need to be cautious about how we use harsh rhetoric, something both Rod and I have struggled with at times I think, and we need to be ready to explain our use of forceful rhetoric to onlookers.

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  1. Adding a footnote here for readers who are stumbling over this line, of whom there seem to be several. If you want some context for what causes me to say this, read Matt’s essay about Dianna Anderson’s approach to sex ethics written a few years ago: https://mereorthodoxy.com/the-end-of-sexual-ethics-love-and-the-limits-of-reason/. The point Matt is making is that Dianna’s approach makes rational reflection on sexual ethics impossible and Rachel, though she says she doesn’t, seems to basically agree with her approach entirely. If that is true, then there’s not any meaningful sense in which we can say that Rachel is doing her ethical reflection in a Christian way, which is what my critique is. If I am wrong on this or am missing something she’s missing that would complicate the picture, I am happy to retract this or post a correction.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador 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, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • GYB

    Man, you guys really hate RHE. If you take fault with her because she is often uncharitable (you aren’t wrong there), you might do well to consider that you aren’t incredibly charitable to her in return: “Other critics in this vein are simply sub-Christian in their ethics and thus do not seem to find any contradiction between Christianity and the norms passed down by the sexual revolution, as in the case with Rachel Held Evans.”

    Do you honestly believe that is where RHE is? For one, “the sexual revolution” is an incredibly vague phrase–it could mean any number of things and you don’t make any effort to clarify what it is you mean by the term. It seems dishonest, if not a little childish, to throw around some vague, undefined term, and then suggest that your “Sub-Christian” opponent just embraces the undefined term unconditionally (which you and I both know is not the case).

    I just wish you could review a book without drawing in unnecessary, uncharitable assertions about people that really have nothing to do with the book (RHE didn’t review the BO, she did a short twitter thread about it). If you really wanted to judge whether Dreher is the Christian voice we need to follow, maybe you should consider how incredibly childish and cruel he has been in responding to negative criticism of the book.

    I say all of this, because in following your writing you normally seem to be level-headed, fair, and talented. The divisiveness with which you opened this review is hardly becoming of someone who wants to be taken seriously (which I think was your larger qualm with RHE).

    • GYB – Thanks for stopping by. :)

      We can disagree on Rachel, that’s fine. I have tons of friends who have been burned by her because of how manipulative she can be. But, as you note, RHE isn’t really the point of the review. I just wanted to make the point that my call for dialogue is not an absolute call for dialogue with all people. I might write a follow-up post on what that means though because there is some nuance to how that works out in practice.

      • GYB

        Again–I don’t understand why so many white men–normally from the evangelical blogosphere–go out of their way (repeatedly) to so viciously attack RHE. I mean, there are a ton of prominent people–pastors, teachers, professors, etc.–that hold RHE’s views (and many would even be to the left of her), but for some reason she is a lightening bolt for easy criticism.

        Disagreeing and being wrong are two different things. I would have no problem with your critique if you actually took the time to back up your sweeping, unfair assertions about a person who has nothing to do with the topic at hand. People who want to be taken seriously don’t take cheap shots at easy targets–I imagine most of the animus RHE faces is because she has a repetitive tendency to take such cheap shots; what I don’t get is why so many people take fault with her for doing it, and then don’t realize that when they take shots back at her they are really doing the same thing.

        Again, as someone who has followed your writing for some time–I didn’t think you were in the camp of taking such cheap shots. Perhaps I was just wrong.

        • GYB – Here is an essay that gets at my thinking about Rachel: https://mereorthodoxy.com/the-end-of-sexual-ethics-love-and-the-limits-of-reason/

          Matt wrote it a few years ago but it holds true.

          Also, FWIW, I _have_ criticized other people who I think take up similar views. In this piece I only criticized white men–a local pastor in my area, Shane Claiborne, and Jonathan Merritt: https://mereorthodoxy.com/functional-marcionism/

          Apologies for responding with links; the trouble is that your questions, which are really good questions, take a good deal of time to honestly and respectfully address and I have a day job plus other commitments as well. :)

          Again, many thanks for commenting!

          • GYB

            No! I appreciate the links! I tend to agree that RHE’s position on SSM/SSA tends to subvert the possibility or sexual ethics–but that is not really what you said. I took fault, not because you disagreed with her, but in suggesting some people aren’t worth dialoguing with you seemed to assert criticisms of RHE that you simply couldn’t prove. It’s one thing to say RHE’s position on SSM subverts Christian sexual ethics, it seems to be an entirely different thing to suggest that she does “not seem to find any contradiction between Christianity and the norms passed down by the sexual revolution.” That critique sounds good, no doubt, but it really only functions as an unnecessary (and honestly unfair) pejorative to score what? Cheap points with a like-minded audience? I guess my critique is that you are too good of a writer and public thinker to fall into such cheap rhetoric that really only diminishes an otherwise good piece. This, likewise, doesn’t even begin to consider the fact that in doing this you really kind of participate in the same type of rhetoric you are faulting RHE for.

            Thanks for the engagement–I guess my foundational concern is what did the pejorative aspect of your comments about RHE add to this post? From the outside looking in (as someone who wouldn’t identify with Dreher, You, or RHE) the critique of RHE seems unnecessarily unfair at best and rhetorically undermining at worst. As Christians we are called to extend grace and mercy–even to those who seem to be our “enemies”–it’s hard to talk about the ethical positions Christians should take within a liberal order if in your piece you make the claim that there are just some christians who don’t deserve to be taken seriously or interacted with.

          • GYB – We agree entirely here: As Christians we are called to extend grace and mercy–even to those who seem to be our “enemies”–it’s hard to talk about the ethical positions Christians should take within a liberal order if in your piece you make the claim that there are just some christians who don’t deserve to be taken seriously or interacted with.

            I’m working on a follow-up post about this now. Thanks for the interaction and pushback!

          • GYB

            I look forward to the post

        • Victoria West

          I’m a woman and RHE’s constant criticism’s of respected conservative pastors/teachers/writers is annoying. How dare they take the Bible and 2000 years of tradition for their views on marriage and sexuality rather than her so liberated and progressive perspective? I too am a daughter of the reformation, and the I think the reformers like Calvin, Luther, and Knox would ask her to be quiet.

          • hoosier_bob

            Well, to be fair, most of the folks that RHE criticizes pander views of marriage, gender, and sexuality that originated from Freudian scholars in the 1880s and that didn’t become mainstream until the 1950s. The fact that these “respected” folks are passing off such views as “biblical” ought to tell you something about their character. That’s not to say that I agree with RHE. I don’t. Even so, she generally hits the spot when she takes on the charlatans associated with the “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement.

          • Victoria West

            Freudian? lol. Just letting GYB know that many women don’t like RHE either.

  • To be fair, based on the endless self-promotion for The Benedict Option by Dreher at the American Conservative, including some pretty direct statements by him, one can be excused for thinking that subtitle aside he truly believes that the BenOp is not “a” strategy, it is “the” strategy for the future. I don’t blame him for that, I wouldn’t spend as much time and effort as he has to write and promote a book that I didn’t believe in but as someone who reads him a lot and has been frustrated by his attempts to shoehorn every topic into the Benedict Option, I can excuse a lot of the confusion surrounding his intent.

  • Greg Herr

    “There are multiple ways in which we could conduct ourselves badly, of course. A desire to preserve unity at the cost of clarity and an unwillingness to take a stance is not a solution and, in fact, will probably cause as many to drift as will a lack of charity and restraint in our rhetoric. Being in the PCA, this is the concern that occupies my mind more as it seems the greater danger in my immediate ecclesial context. I suspect that it is also the greater danger in most Catholic dioceses and many non-denominational evangelical churches.”

    Fortunately, this is *not* true in ‘most Catholic dioceses’ and if you would like to allay your suspicion—and truly, Jake, no sarcasm is intended here—become Catholic so you can experience for yourself. It will take 10-20 years, possibly, but at the close of a few decades your suspicions will be changed. Baked into the DNA of Catholicism is Authority, so while This or That diocese may drift, the ecclesial authoritative structure of the Catholic Church provides the corrective.

    From Rod Dreher: “…Catholicism has the infrastructure and the population to support all kinds of local Ben Op efforts.” [Source: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/catholics-orthodox-the-benedict-option/ ]

    True-dat.

    As an Evangelical, I found that to be accurate, especially in terms of praxis:

    “What my dream going forward is that the small-o orthodox Christians of the western world would have a great conversation about these topics.”

    My dream is that people ‘church’, and tell us how much they love, love, love their current Christian community that they are thoroughly committed to and embedded in. Conversation’s great; participation is better.

    I love, love, love mine. Tell us about yours.

    Appreciated your review, thanks.

  • Chris Pascarella

    I think the Benedict Option actually challenges those who lean both Left and Right. Dreher’s proposal calls believes on the Right to wean themselves off the addiction to national politics. That’s a dead end. Socially conservative believers have lost the culture and should not try to use national politics to “win the culture for Christ.” The Ben Op also challenges believers on the Left to not accommodate to a secularized culture, especially on sexual morality.

    I also think that Elizabeth Bruenig misses the context out of which Rod writes: observing the Religious Right up close. Bruenig, in her review of Dreher’s book, argues that believers should still be involved in the political realm. But, I’m going out on a limb here, Bruenig would only be comfortable with a certain kind of political involvement by believers–mostly Left-leaning involvement. I don’t think Bruenig really wants most of the Church to be politically involved–that’s where the Moral Majority and Religious Right came from. Would she really be ok if believers heeded her call to be politically involved and then flocked to the Religious Right again? I doubt it.

  • Victoria West

    I read the book “Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants” last year and was impressed with the order’s principles that you described so well. I lived in “back to the land” type of communities in the early 80’s which were not based on Christianity, but offered deep friendships and cooperation between neighbors. I think communities based on Benedictine ideals (without the monasticism) with singles, families, and married couples living in close proximity to each other and with some shared resources has many benefits whether the world is going to hell in a hand basket or not. This is by far the best review I have read of Dreher’s book yet.

  • Ryan Booth

    This is really great stuff, the best commentary on the book so far. I completely agree that the bulk of Rod’s book is basic Christian advice. I’m currently in the middle of Trevin Wax’s new book This Is Our Time, which is more obviously of the “Christian Living Advice” genre (and which, so far, seems excellent), and you could almost swap out whole chapters of it with ones from the Benedict Option without a problem. Both rightly recognize that our ability to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” as the Apostle James puts it, is simply incompatible with the use of technology in modern Christian homes, and a fundamental change is needed in our daily practices.

    The difference is that Rod is sounding an alarm, saying that the future of Western Christianity is at stake and depends on our willingness as individual Christians, families, churches, and parachurch organizations to make changes necessary to preserve our faith and witness to future generations.

    Personally, I can’t read Ezekiel (chapters 3 and 33) without coming to the conclusion that all Christians are called to be watchmen. And a watchman who sounds the alarm isn’t defeatist, he’s fulfilling his duty. As you note in a previous post, Rod’s sounding the alarm isn’t that different from what other Christians have been doing for the past century. And the threat from secular modernity is undeniable. I think of God’s words in Jeremiah 23:

    “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.'”

    And that is why I absolutely cannot agree with you that the worst that Jamie Smith can be accused of is being naïve. Smith goes much further than saying that the watchman is wrong and that there is no threat (which is, in itself, worse that naiveté, as one can’t be naïve if one knows better). He says that the watchman is full of “bitterness and resentment and sense of loss that carries a whiff of privilege threatened rather than witness compromised.”

    I’m sorry, Jake, but to excuse that slander as “naïve” is simply to excuse sin. To say that The Benedict Option is about the loss of white privilege is to take the other side in our battle with secularism. It’s wrong, and it’s wrong for you to brush it aside as naiveté.

  • BWF

    This review does encourage me to take another look at the Benedict
    Option – specifically, the eight values that are the core. If a
    religious community of any nature makes a concerted effort to
    incorporate these values (or re-dedicate themselves to them if they’ve
    held to them in the past), it will be of great help to them in the
    coming years.

    There are still a few reservations that might or
    might not be answered in the book. The first is whether this type of
    church organization is compatable with the Lutheran view of
    vocation(that is, that all honest work is pleasing to God and that jobs
    classified as secular are no less prioritized than church-related jobs).
    It sounds like it would be, but I’m curious if the book makes note of
    this (given the author’s Eastern Orthodox theology, I’m not sure one way
    or the other).

    Second, and related: how are the larger economic
    trends in the world addressed? This is just my opinion, but the
    changing demands of this new economic world are more a threat to
    Christian living than the culture war hot-button issues that Dreher
    typically rails against (although the two may be indirectly related). As
    I see it, a Benedict Option-esque community will be helpful for a
    person in giving them a sense both of community and reminding them of
    the importance of God; and yet, if his/her own vocation isn’t supported
    in either the world or the local community, how can one support oneself
    and one’s family?

    • Joel

      While the book may be different, my impression from his online writing is that Dreher occasionally says “yeah, capitalism can shape us in bad ways” and then immediately goes back to talking about sex.

      I understand Dreher’s concerns about the sexual revolution, and agree with them to a certain degree. But he has a myopic focus on it.

  • Joel

    How much does Dreher address nonwhite Christians in this book? Because based on
    his online writing, he seems to have a major blindspot there (to put it
    in the most charitable possible way). There are many reasons why including minority communities would change Dreher’s narrative significantly.

    I don’t think Carl Trueman’s (and others) review of The Unintended Reformation is entirely fair, but Dreher seems to have greatly oversimplifed the book’s argument too, so I won’t defend his use of it.

    • Joel

      To elaborate on the point on minorities:

      1. Nonwhite Christian communities are often more vital and have resisted secularization better, often while living in urban areas. So without over-idealizing them, why not see what we can learn from them instead of just going to monasteries and obscure BenOp towns? What could, for example, Hispanic family dynamics teach us about how to keep the faith strong between generations?

      2. If we accept Dreher’s premise that our politics should work specifically for protecting Christians interests, that would include minority concerns that go beyond Dreher’s short sexual list. I think most Hispanic Catholics are pretty worried about deportation tearing families apart. What about black Protestants and incidents like Dylan Roof? How are both of these affected by our rising ethnonationalism? These things are real dangers to nonwhite Christians. But Dreher focuses almost exclusively on the sexual revolution, with an occasional halfhearted nod to capitalism’s problems.

      3. Even if not intentionally fashioned that way, Dreher’s idealized “Benedict Option communities” will be overwhelmingly white. Many minorities will not have the money and career options to just uproot themselves, or they may have strong family/cultural ties or other reasons not to leave. (To some degree this also applies to lower-class whites)

      • brian janaszek

        *Even if not intentionally fashioned that way, Dreher’s idealized “Benedict Option communities” will be overwhelmingly white.*

        I haven’t read Dreher’s book yet, but I suspect you are mis-representing what the Benedict Option really is. Yes, some folks may be called to live in community with other like-minded Christians, and, perhaps, if you are really a pessimist, it may be necessary for Christians to do this just to support one another. However, I don’t think Dreher is advocating the formation of brick-and-mortar communities as the only path forward for Christians in this present age. Rather, I suspect he is calling us to do exactly what many non-white Christians do quite well–form closely-knit social webs around the Gospel and their local churches.

        If you can get beyond Dreher’s conservatism (which existed before his deepening faith), you will see he is doing exactly what Hauerwas (and others) did decades ago–begged the Church to actually the Church.

        • hoosier_bob

          Sort of. Hauerwas provided something resembling a positive program. Dreher’s entire thesis rests on one’s accepting the notion that same-sex marriage is so calamitous that it spells the end of civilization. As David Brooks noted yesterday, that thesis is fairly myopic, especially when one considers the various calamities that Western civilization has faced over the centuries. I don’t see Hauerwas suffering from that kind of myopia. Nor does Hauerwas scapegoat one class of people as embodying everything that’s wrong with civilization in the way that Dreher scapegoats non-heterosexual people. Mind you, Dreher supported the original version of the Indiana RFRA, which would have granted qualified immunity to religious people who commit religiously motivated criminal acts against gays and lesbians. The law was later changed to close that loophole, which sent Dreher into a tizzy. After that incident, I had a hard time viewing Dreher as anything but a kind of alt-right sort of figure. Then, again, our VP signed that bill into law.

          Christians wonder why gay people see them as enemies. Well, maybe it’s because Christians organizations are advocating for laws that would have granted qualified immunity to the Orlando nightclub gunman, so long as his actions were based on Islam’s condemnation of homosexuality.

          • brian janaszek

            I agree completely about Hauerwas. I was talking about this very thing with friends the other day, specifically that Hauerwas has not lost his hope in the work of Christ. Granted, I think he sees the same sorts of general problems that Dreher does, but he can talk about solutions in a positive, hopeful way.

            Interestingly, Hauerwas has spilled plenty of ink about sex and sexuality, but as you point out, his program is positive, and, in fact, ends up rethinking Christian sexual ethics completely (and by that, I don’t mean discarding 2000 years of teaching, but rather re-examining what sex and marriage really mean in light of the Gospel).

          • hoosier_bob

            I agree. Hauerwas has written rather persuasively about sex. By contrast, Dreher’s thinking on sexuality is more Freudian than Christian. Ironically, no Christian before the 1950s would even tend to view Dreher’s heterosexism as Christian. When I read Dreher, it sounds much more like recycled James Dobson than Saint Benedict. In many ways, Dreher’s views on sexuality are reflective of a kind of eugenics, but applied to sexuality instead of race. That’s not surprising, since the Freudian bunk from which he draws largely shares the same intellectual origins as the eugenics movement.

            I wrote a bit more in my comment above. As an asexual, I find Dreher’s writing to be deeply troubling. Dreher’s obsession with “sexual orientation” and his valorization of Freudian notions of heterosexuality mark a sharp contrast with the celibate monk from Norcia. I see no such issue with Hauerwas’s writing. But maybe Dreher has a point. Christian formation indeed is lacking when American Christians can’t see Dreher for the narcisstic charlatan that he is.

          • CPT

            “In many ways, Dreher’s views on sexuality are reflective of a kind of eugenics, but applied to sexuality instead of race.”

            What in the world does that mean?

          • SamHamilton

            It makes as much as sense as saying that Dreher’s rhetoric about gays reminds one of the Nazis and the holocaust.

          • hoosier_bob

            Traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality has generally had little to say on the question of sexual orientation. We’ve known for millennia that there’s a diversity in people’s attractions, but have never acknowledged it as having much relevance to the construction of one’s social identity. In other words, our normative social scripts were largely agnostic to the underlying biological factors that make up sexual orientation. The prevailing social identities prior to the 20th century were as ignorant of heterosexuality as they were to homosexuality.

            That began to change in the 20th century with the invention of “heterosexuality”–a social identity centered around the experience and satisfaction of opposite-sex sexual attraction. The notion had its roots in the same pseudo-science that gave us the eugenics movement. Under this new “science,” one could predict sexual deviancy merely by observing one’s lack of sexual desire for the opposite sex. Thus, “heterosexuality” came to the fore as a distinct social identity. Marital scripts were modified to conform to newly adopted heterosexual identities. In a departure from two millennia of Christian teaching, Christians began to embrace heterosexuality as a prerequisite to marriage and to social acceptance generally. After all, everyone else was a deviant.

            If you follow Dreher’s blog, you’ll see that he generally embraces this kind of pseudo-science as central to the Benedict Option. Dreher’s objections to homosexuality rest more on this kind of neo-Freudian pseudo-science than they do on any kind of traditional Christian thinking on the subject. Many evangelicals may not recognize it because it’s fairly consistent with the “biblical manhood” teaching that one often finds in the PCA and SBC. Even so, it strikes me as fairly ironic that Dreher’s Benedict-oriented project takes its name from celibate monks but adopts a view of sexual orientation essentialism that views opposite-sex sexuality and the nuclear family as society’s most basic goods.

            As I noted above, I’m asexual. I communicate with a number of other asexuals who have grown up in the PCA, SBC, and other denominations infected with this kind of Freudian junk science. Most of us were referred to reparative therapy at one time or another. I was denied communion at one church. Another pastor broke up my engagement because he didn’t believe that it was right to enter into a marriage that wasn’t centered around heterosexual desire. None of this happened because I was engaged in any sin; it was merely because I lacked a “godly heterosexuality.” And Dreher seems to buy into this same modernist, neo-Freudian bunk. After all, more than a few people have noted that Dreher’s BenOp seems to have no place for singles, or, for that matter, for anyone who doesn’t conform to a 1950s-era sexualized social script that privileges “heterosexuality” and casts off everything else as degenerate.

            If Dreher adopted a view of human sexuality, family, and gender concomitant with that of St. Benedict, I’d have no objection. But he doesn’t. Rather, while railing against modernism, he selectively adopts views of sexuality, family, and gender that find their origin in a modernist invention of Freudian social theorists, which scholars call “familialism.” But familialism isn’t remotely Christian; it’s a secular invention based on junk science. In my view, Dreher’s refusal to part with familialism undercuts his entire project. Then, again, I tend to see Dreher as something of a huckster, along the lines of Benny Hinn. I keep waiting for him to get a show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. So, I didn’t really expect much more.

          • DR84

            “Well, maybe it’s because Christians organizations are advocating for laws that would have granted qualified immunity to the Orlando nightclub gunman, so long as his actions were based on Islam’s condemnation of homosexuality.”

            This is just insane and could not be further from the truth. What do you gain by such a grand lie?

  • hoosier_bob

    I don’t know that anyone’s misreading Dreher. I agree that his proposals for religious community life are worth considering. But these are worth considering regardless of the social norms of the surrounding culture. After all, it’s not the job of the state to see to Christians’ spiritual formation. But that’s not the reason that Dreher gives! Dreher’s subtitle might be more consistent with his thesis if he were proposing a strategy for living in a post-Christendom nation. And that’s an important distinction. Dreher is not so much grieving the fall of Christianity in America, as he is grieving the fall of what Andrew Sullivan calls Christianism–a political embodiment of Christianity, wherein law and policy tilt in favor of conservative Christians and against against its dissenters.

    So, yes, Dreher is on to something. But he’s on to it for entirely the wrong reasons. Something like the BenOp is good for Christians because we serve a Kingdom that is not of this world, and we need to immerse ourselves in a kind of practice that reminds us of that in spite of the cares of daily life. It isn’t just something to pursue because Christians have, in some places, lost the political power to make life hard and uncomfortable for people who dissent in certain respects from Christian moral norms. To me, that explains Jamie Smith’s criticism. Some kind of BenOp ought to be the strategy of Christians all the time and in all places. It’s not, as Dreher supposes, a mere back-up plan, only to be pursued when Christians lack the earthly political power to marginalize people they don’t like. Dreher’s thesis suggests that the primary purpose of the church is to secure earthly political power, so that Christians can use the coercive authority of the state to make life easier for themselves and harder for certain “others” within the surrounding culture. But that’s a far cry from the church that Christ established, whose primary purpose is to shape us spiritually to live with Him for eternity. And it’s not a misreading of Dreher to gloss over the fact that his thesis is fundamentally anti-Christian, not to mention that it primarily rests on a misapprehension of the world around us.

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  • From what I have read of the Benedict Option, including that which has been written by Dreher himself, the article above does not do justice to this option over one of the key issues to dispute: the physical separation from the world advocated by the option. For those who believe that such is not a major point in Dreher’s teachings here, then why his option in the first place? After all, all that he talks about in his option has always been there with any well connected membership in any local church.

    Another key issue for The Benedict Option is not Dreher’s analysis of culture and society, but what the Christian’s role in culture and society is presupposed to be. Dreher’s seems to observe culture and society from a perspective that says that Christianity’s place in society is to exercise a privileged place in society so it could exercise some degree of rule over it. Now that Christians are losing their past privileged place, Dreher is calling for a change of course, a kind of going home with one’s toys because one lost a game. What many a religiously conservative American Christian has not considered is whether we should share culture and society with others as equals rather than as a privileged group. That means that we work side by side with nonChristians to create a society so that all have an equal place in society. Lately, too many of us have been concerned with suppressing equal rights for those in the LGBT community to do that. Sharing society with the LGBT community as equals is an anathema to many of us religiously conservative Christians because we feel compelled, from wearing our religion on our sleeves, to have society punish them for their choices rather than to make room for them as equals. This is why many of us religiously conservative Christians have been taking a hit in society. If we were content with just sharing the Gospel while seeking equal rights for the LGBT community in society, we would not be facing the possibility of marginalization in a secular society.

    Another problem we have is that we religiously conservative American Christians are too authoritarian in personality to share society with others as equals. Because many of our relationships are built around authority structures, many of us seem to be unable to relate with other groups as equals. We obsessed with some groups having authority in society while other groups must be content with what those in authority are pleased to give them and thus compelled to insist that such must be the case or society is lost..

    Again, Dreher’s option is already being carried out when we are firmly connected with our churches. And since Dreher is calling for much more than such connected relationships, it seems that the article above has not done justice to what the Benedict Option is really calling for.

    • SamHamilton

      Hi Curt,
      In regards to your remarks about the BenOp requiring “the physical separation from the world,” I think you’re mistaken. From my readings of what he’s said, I think Dreher would say that following the BenOp does not requires a physical separation, though it could take that form as in the case of the folks in Oklahoma he’s written about. On the other hand, he’s talked about the Catholic community in Hyattsville, MD that hasn’t separated itself, but just oriented itself around a vibrant parish.

      Yes, participation in a local church in an ideal world should provide us what we need, but often times it doesn’t because the local church leaders don’t care about discipleship or aren’t willing to do the tough work of telling people they need to say “no” to x, y, and z of what the world offers. Dreher has been very critical of ordained church leadership failing their parishioners.

      • Sam,
        The following is from Dreher’s Christianity Today article (see pg 3 of http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/march/benedict-options-vision-for-christian-village.html?start=1):


        The Finklers initially thought living in a neighborhood with their church family was weird. Circumstances caused them to live temporarily in the church neighborhood, and they discovered what a difference it made in their family’s life. Later, when they returned to their house in the exurbs, the Finklers missed what they had back in Eagle River. Everybody in the exurban settlement knew each other and were of the same class, but it wasn’t the same.

        “There wasn’t the sense of the common good that you have when you’re living around people who share your faith,” Shelley Finkler once told me. “That made a big difference when it came to reaching out to help each other.”

        The Finklers soon sold their house and moved again, this time much closer to their church. Why be close? Because as I said earlier, the church can’t just be the place you go on Sundays—it must become the center of your life. That is, you may visit your house of worship only once a week, but what happens there in worship, and the community and the culture it creates, must be the things around which you order the rest of the week.

        This living in Christian communities, especially a community for one’s church is, at least to a significant degree, a physical separation from the world. And it has side effect that both interferes with our witness and endangers our faith. That side effect is insularity. Sometimes, we need a view from outside our communities to provide a check on our communities themselves. But not just that, the more insular we become, the more we say to the world that we have everything to teach and nothing to learn from them. Such an attitude does not win over many converts let alone that insularity makes it easier for Christian communities to become cults.

        Dreher’s option may not provide a complete physical separation from the world, but it does provide a partial one based on segregation. For when one moves, is one allowed to sell one’s house to an unbeliever? If so, how does the community remain Christian enough to carry out the Benedict Option as time goes on?

        • SamHamilton

          Curt – In my comment to you I said that Dreher talks about intentionally planned communities like the one in Eagle River and the one in Oklahoma where there are varying degrees of physical separation, but he also talks about communities where that doesn’t occur. In fact, he mentions one in that article – the ecumenical community in Wichita that revolves around Eight Day Books and its Institute. Dreher would probably say that depending on the situation, the BenOp could take different forms. Some might prefer to look more like the Orthodox Jewish community he talks about in that article and others might be more modeled on the Catholic community in Hyattsville. Or it could look like what Leah Libresco started in D.C. among her single friends. There’s no one model.

          As for me, I don’t want to live in a planned community on land owned by the church that I can only sell to another member of the church. But I do want to live (and do live) in a neighborhood with other Christians who go to the same church so that we can support each other and reach out together to the wider world. I don’t want to live in a Christian commune, nor on a secular island without other Christians, or belong to a church that is just a social club on Sundays that has no wider impact on our lives.

          • Sam,
            The spirit that is behind the Christian communities is also behind the non-planned communities and the personal withdraw from society. But he can’t say it isn’t about physical separation when: 1) he uses monasteries as examples; and 2) he advises people to live in Christian ghettos–ghetto does not imply anything about wealth. More that the physical separation is the personal separation from the world because Christians are no longer in control. This touches on my main criticism of his option: the seeking of Christian privilege to establish some degree of supremacy over society. It is as if he is saying that if we are not in control, culture is too dangerous for us to fully experience.

            As for you, what are you going to do when you pick a house? Are you going to survey the neighbors to see what church they go to? Which Christian doesn’t want to live in a neighborhood with other Christians? But what he is advising goes beyond that.

          • SamHamilton

            Curt,
            I must not be writing very clearly, because you don’t seem to be understanding my point. Yes, Dreher uses monasteries (Nursia in Italy, Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma) as examples. But he also uses other types of communities as examples. Some are very structured, like Eagle River in Alaska, Amish communities, or the Bruderhof. Others are simply Christians living in community together with no real structure outside of a local church, like the example I keep citing from Hyattsville. Or it could be what Leah Libresco did. I’m not sure if Dreher has cited them or not, but the new monasticism movement would probably fall somewhere in here as well. It’s a spectrum from very structured to very little structure with varying degrees of contact with the wider non-Christian community. The point is to create a thick community regardless of where this community is geographically. There is no one model that Dreher thinks people need to follow.

            Though it’s besides the point, I’m curious…do you think it was wrong for Christians (from the early church to today) to establish and live in monasteries?

            As for me, we deliberately chose a local church we could walk to where people who attend that church mostly live nearby as well. No surveys necessary. Why wouldn’t any Christian desire this? Who likes driving 30 minutes to church and never seeing any of the people during the week you worship with because they all live 30 minutes away as well? Keep in mind, this is in a city of 150k people so it’s like we don’t rub shoulders with people from all different walks of life.

          • Sam,
            I just acknowledged the three parts to Dreher’s position that you just listed. So I don’t know your point here. My point is that there is still a withdrawal from society based on the failure of Christianity to maintain its control over culture.

            I disagree with the monastic approach in the beginning. My disagreement comes from Bonhoeffer who compared Luther to the monasteries. For where as the monasteries, according to Bonhoeffer, attempted to create a world they could love, Luther took his faith out into the world that existed. In addition, it as I wrote before, that Dreher’s presupposition that Christianity should seek a place of supremacy in society so that it can control, to varying degrees, culture is wrong. We need to relate to others as equals and jointly decide what kind of society we can create that is as just as possible.

          • SamHamilton

            Curt,
            My point is that the BenOp as described by Dreher does not require “the physical separation from the world” that you noted in your initial comment. I’d argue that it requires living differently as an example to the world, but it doesn’t require living separately.

          • Sam,
            If you read my very first comment , you will find that I never said that the BenOp required physical separation. Instead, I wrote the following:


            the physical separation from the world advocated by the option.

            Note the word ‘advocated.’ In fact, I have acknowledged that the BenOp consisted of communal living or the personal withdrawal from society. The personal withdrawal has to do with the lost state of society and its culture. And that withdrawal has to do politically as well as culturally. And that personal withdrawal is in response to the loss of whatever degree of Christian supremacy over society that existed.

            One could easily not conform to the world, as Paul wrote in Romans 12, without the BenOp. Such was done before BenOp. Dreher is just using a monastery approach from history to try to create a template that would provide Christians with a way of living in today’s world. And all I have done is criticized the foundation for the reason of his model and the different ways of separating from world which he advocated.

          • SamHamilton

            Curt – You wrote that the BenOp advocated physical separation. What is the difference between that and what I said you said?

            I’m about 2/3rds of the way through the book now and I can’t see how anyone who has read this book can say that Dreher is advocating physical separation.

          • Sam,
            What is the difference between advocating and requiring?

            What Dreher is minimally pushing, that is requiring, is a significant degree of separation and withdrawing from culture and society because it is too toxic to the traditions of the Christian faith to do otherwise. And the base for this is solely on changing sexual mores of society. In other words, the greed and violence does not threaten the transmission of Christian traditions, only changing sexual mores do.

          • hoosier_bob

            This is a great point. There’s a lot that we need to accomplish as Christians in terms of making an effort to be more intentional about living in proximity to each other, taking vacations together, etc.

            I’m single, and have no real desire to marry. If we look across history, we see that about 10-15% of people elect not to marry. Sometimes this was due to involuntary conditions, but was generally via choice. In fact, society needs some number of people who are not tethered down by the obligations of hearth and home.

            But since the mid-20th century, our culture has tended to treat marriage as normative. This fits with the emergence of “compulsory heterosexuality” as the defining narrative around which people are supposed to structure their social relationships. In particular, this narrative assumes that every social relationship is essentially reducible to sexual desire. Thus, social life becomes dominated by isolated, “nuclear” family units, where all social intimacy is to be found exclusively within that social unit. Most of my friends are gay. That’s because gay-identifying people have elected to reject compulsory heterosexuality, and are much more free to operate within a social context that’s something more than an agglomeration of nuclear units. I’ve also come to see that sex often plays a minimal role in many of my friends relationships. I’ve often wondered whether many of my friends aren’t asexuals like me, who may prefer singleness to married life, but who opted for the gay social script because it was the only viable alternative to compulsory heterosexuality, especially if you’re a guy. I suspect that most guys who identify as “gaybros” fall into that category.

            The chief flaw that I see with Dreher’s BenOp is that it largely accepts Freudian notions of compulsory heterosexuality as a given, and seems therefore to see the familialist conception of the nuclear family as more fundamental to people’s lives than the church. I think it’s telling, for example, that Dreher spent several days at SBTS in Louisville, which is ground zero for “biblical manhood” and other efforts to pass off Freudian social theory as Christian. For me, any successful BenOp has to recover the notion that the community of the church is primary over that of the biological family. That has to start by making an effort to live together in common neighborhoods. After all, if we scatter in every which direction after church ends on Sunday morning, the nuclear family will be primary over and against the community of the church regardless of what we hope.

            I think it’s also worth looking at the fate of singles in the church. A pastor friend was recently noting that single Christian adults without kids no longer attend church. He pastors an urban church that sits amidst a neighborhood of 20- and 30-something professionals. In his neighborhood, 78% of residents are single. On Sunday morning, only about 20% of those who attend his church are single, and nearly all of those are divorced women with young kids. He notes that he commonly runs into Bible-believing, orthodox Christian singles in and about town. But they haven’t been to church in years, and have no intentions of returning. I’m in the same boat. When I visit an evangelical church (usually, PCA, as that’s what’s familiar to me), I feel about as welcome as a convicted pedophile. So, I just stopped going.

          • SamHamilton

            I’m not sure I buy into your Freudian theories, but I give a hearty amen! to this paragraph of what you wrote:

            For me, any successful BenOp has to recover the notion that the community of the church is primary over that of the biological family. That has to start by making an effort to live together in common neighborhoods. After all, if we scatter in every which direction after church ends on Sunday morning, the nuclear family will be primary over and against the community of the church regardless of what we hope.

            Yes! I realize that singles will naturally congregate together and couples with children will do so as well, but churches should work to make sure that these two groups are mixing as much as possible as well as highlighting the benefits that unattached people (whether they want to get married or have no plans to) can bring to the community. And I totally agree about finding a church that isn’t just a place people commute to on Sunday mornings.

  • 0pus

    A good and thoughtful article.

    I see that Rachel Evans gets more coverage in the comments than in the article itself. Given her ravenous hunger for publicity, I’m sure that would please her immensely.

    I reviewed two of her books on Amazon. Neither review stayed there very long, due to the number of her devoted fans (I’m tempted to say “cult,” but I’ll leave the hyperbole to her followers) complained about the reviews, and spewed their vitriol at me in ways I had not expected. Their responses to my reviews generally took the form of “Why do you hate Rachel so much?” and “You’re obviously not a Christian,” and, the most ironic and my personal favorite: “You obviously did not read the book.” I say “ironic,” because most of the reviews actually were quotes from the book itself. When you post about 50 quotes in a review, and hundreds of people say “You obviously didn’t read the book,” you get the distinct impression THEY did not read the book. I must admit, the zeal of her following was surprising and a little bit frightening. I’m not criticizing her personally, but her writings are shallow and vapid, and her grasp of the Bible and history extremely shaky. That seems to appeal to people who wish to identify as Christians but have no intention of letting some dusty old Bible affect their ethics.

    While it’s tempting to post a few of her gems here, I’ll confine myself to one that seems to typify her post-Christian religion: “There are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text [of the Bible] is not, What does it say? but What am I looking for?” That’s from page 296 of Year of Biblical Womanhood, and yes, I did read the book, and was appalled by it. If your exegetical principle is “What am I looking for?” you can bet you won’t end up at orthodox Christianity.

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