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.
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.” A 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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 a 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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- 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.