Alan Jacobs has some very good questions for critics of the Benedict Option, and at the risk of possibly digging myself into a deeper hole with yet another BenOp post I would like to offer some answers.
My only grounds for doing so are that I have lived in about 2½ different communities that I think could be considered “Benedict Option” (the ½ being my homeschool co-op, which I would say lacked the localism that attends most BenOp discussions).
Here is Jacobs’ succinct description of why we need the Benedict Option followed by a conclusion, which I find quite helpful:
The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.
In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.
Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.
From these three premises proponents of the Benedict Option draw a conclusion: If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.
He then goes on to inquire how one could disagree with this, and if not, why would one oppose the still oppose the Benedict Option? It is a fair question, and when it is phrased such, it seems hard to refute. Yet I think Jacobs has fallen into the same trap that the BenOp’s chief promulgator, Rod Dreher, often does by simplifying his definitions down to their very narrowest premises—to the point that they are universally acceptable axioms of Christian life and practice—and failing to bring in either the theological or missiological implications that other Christians working out from those same axioms have charged ahead with in recent decades. In doing so, the Benedict Option is destined to flounder if it does not deal with how the Great Commission or the Great Commandments shape our Christian lives and communities.
Jacobs is willing to acknowledge that Dreher’s rhetoric plays a role, which is a fair and appropriate concession. However, because the problems Jacobs has described above have already been present for so many Christians for so long and the solutions to the threat that toxic modernity poses are already being worked out in the church, I think there is plenty worthwhile to ponder in the BenOp conversation. One can be offended by Dreher and still be a BenOp enthusiast.
What about the internal life of BenOp communities?
That being said, there are some pretty important practical objections to BenOp practices that ought to be taken seriously, all of which deal not so much with how to protect ourselves and our families from outside evils, but how to guard against the carnage wrought by well-intentioned believers.
Take, for example, the question of abuse. The best responses I could find about the potential for asphyxiating spiritual control or physical harm in an intense community such as the BenOp would prescribe is somewhere between “I’ll keep thinking about it” and “it’s just a risk we’ll have to run”. Both are perfectly acceptable but vastly incomplete answers that deserve a lot more working out than they already have been given, if not at least for the reason that not working them out ahead of time could very well give a hostile culture legal grounds for persecution of a BenOp community. Jesus’ admonition about millstones is a far more compelling reason to have institutional statutes for child protection, but I point out the legal implications to stress the primacy this discussion should take.
Similarly, the potential for good-hearted Christians to go to war with one another about anything seems to be elided in most BenOp discussions. Every Christian community I have ever participated in has seen heated debates about theological or practical issues drive friendships apart; the more intense communities seemed to be the ones with the greatest potential for enmity. There is no amount of liturgy or localism that will address this fundamental defect in the human heart that is one of Satan’s greatest strategies against ministries all over the world. I cannot say for certain that it is any worse in modernity, but the discipline of Christian love for one another deserves more serious consideration as we talk about how to form more intense Christian communities. How would parachurch organizations, nonprofits, and churches work together in a BenOp vision, and how would the BenOp schema alter the tendency towards petty infighting that often besets attempts at such cooperation?
In addition, I have yet to see any substantial discussion of the questions of race raised by Jake Meador here at Mere-O, nor has Dreher addressed the tension between wanting to resist the entrenchment of toxic modernity and keeping out the immigrants and refugees who are less enchanted by modernity than any of our white, middle-class neighbors. For many Christians in America, the desire to cultivate spiritual formation feels synonymous with the desire to isolate oneself in a modern middle-class suburb with access to a quality public school that will allow a child to attend an elite university. This, of course, dovetails quite nicely with the racial hegemony of the past century that has been enforced in various institutional and non-institutional ways over the years. The Benedict Option is clearly at war with the first premise, but I fear it will be doomed to the same sort of judgment God seems to be visiting upon evangelicalism if it chooses to be passively fall in line with this hegemony. (I wrote about how to do the hard work of rejecting it here and here.)
Related is the question of what relationship between a BenOp community and its non-Christian or nominally Christian neighbors might have. Here, of course, is where a variety of wannabe Options have sprung up, most of which seem to be attempts to define what is meant by “Not Withdrawal!” Here, most people who favor the BenOp seem to think that the situation is hopeless enough in the West that we can only hope to save the souls of our children and any pagan who happens to wander onto our farm/abbey/school/handmade door-handle enterprise. This stance, whether articulated as such or not, seems to garner the most attention and the most “visceral” responses (as Jacobs referred to them), but at the risk of retreading the work of others who have wrestled with this question very well, I will try to address a more fundamental tension at the heart of the Benedict Option.
The BenOp and the Great Commission
While the Great Commission is often invoked against the Benedict Option, the words of Jesus indicate quite plainly that we are in the business of making disciples. As Jacobs states, our world as we know it is so hostile to disciple-making that we ought to gear our institutional power towards Christian formation in order that we might not lose any member to the devil, especially our children. I have written before about why I think the best defense is a good offense, but it must be said that one of the marks of a strong Christian (and thus one of the things which our Christian institutions must form) is a passion for evangelism, missions, and ministries of mercy and justice. Thus, any BenOp institutions must be actively practicing these disciplines of faith.
This is not to say that the average BenOp proponent is somehow opposed to evangelism or mercy ministry, but on the whole there does seem to be a willingness to downplay these aspects of the church’s mission. This is due to the BenOp’s unhealthy disconnection from ecclesiology and missiology, which (especially in the work of Lesslie Newbigin) have already been working out how to form disciples in a hostile modern culture for decades. Jacobs asks what fault there is to be found the BenOp communities Dreher has already identified, to which I would ask what is right (or wrong) about institutions like YoungLife and InterVarsity which are explicitly devoted to discipleship and are swimming against the cultural tides.
A great deal of literature written by Christians (including the growing BenOp corpus) features a great deal of pessimism about the church as it is in relation to the culture around it. This is not a modern phenomenon in Christendom as far as I can tell, but I would hope that we might be able to appropriately take stock of the situation in the West at a time when Christianity is making significant gains among peoples formerly hostile to it. The entire international missions movement has a tremendous focus on planting churches and making disciples in cultures explicitly opposed to the Gospel—to what degree might the BenOp learn from this movement and the domestic ministries which have been doing the same for decades? Is there anything lacking in the enthusiasm for localism that one sees in most church planters with appropriately modest ambitions these days, or is there more yet to be done?
What of evangelism?
Evangelizing, advocating for justice, and doing acts of mercy—whether locally or abroad—will be a part of any robust Christian formation and ought to be done in tandem with the study, worship, and prayer necessary to make it so. However, they do rightly expose us and our children to the world, the flesh, and the devil in ways which we cannot control in the same ways as when we are studying, worshiping, or praying. The scope of the New Testament and church history shows the people of God constantly being pushed out of their comfort into contact with unevangelized peoples; their faithfulness to love one another and love others even at the risk of their own lives advanced the glory of God in ways that a well-scripted argument (valuable as those are!) never could.
The BenOp rightly recognizes the work and sacrifice necessary to attend to the disciplines of mind, heart, and spirit to resist the world, the flesh, and the devil. I think it is yet to fully wrestle with the risk inherent with the discipline of loving others or fully work out how the discipleship we are trying to impart will incorporate the Bible’s teachings on loving our enemies and welcoming strangers, immigrants, refugees, and orphans. Or, for that matter, the post-Christian Samaritans who worship at the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
After all, another theme that dominates Dreher’s writing is the cultural morass which various communities in the West seem to have found themselves; presumably many BenOp communities would find themselves in proximity to the people drowning in the waste products of promiscuity, drug abuse, and self-centeredness that cultural elites have flushed downstream. It seems obvious to me that for every BenOp community nestled into an isolated riverbend, there should be two in a trailer park or neglected inner-city neighborhood. Yet I still get the sense that the BenOp is trying to protect us from lost people as much as it is trying to be a light to them. The Bible clearly teaches both, but it always speaks as if the lost– powerful cultural elites and powerless victims of sins– are a present fixture in our lives to bring the Holy Spirit to bear upon. I suspect that the healthy fear that animates much of the BenO might lead us to hide our light under a bushel unless we clearly plan ahead to do otherwise.
Missiology can help illuminate and fill out the BenOp.
Ignoring these souls because of the potential harm they might do to us or our children is virtually guaranteed to poison our children’s spirituality by teaching them to eat their spiritual seed corn. We can debate about the policies that will restore these communities to economic vitality, but there is no argument that a long, patient, sacrificial love from the household of faith is necessary to rebuild virtuous neighborhoods. There are many churches in the Christian Community Development Association that have chosen to invest themselves in spiritual formation and neighbor-love, but I would like to also highlight the work of my friends Shane and Wendy Lankford who have chosen to do the slow, hard work of loving young men who are aging out of the foster care system. Their travails are worth reading as they seek to implement a model called The Open Table, which brings families in need to churches who create partnerships for discipleship.
We can all agree that following Jesus is not easy and that a cultural milieu which used to at least favor some form of faithful Christianity has shifted to its opposite. There have been severe consequences for the church, but many Christians in their communities have responded with their own versions of the Benedict Option to make disciples, worship God, and love their neighbors. I personally owe much of my spiritual formation to parents and others who practiced the BenOp before it was the BenOp, and I write in the hopes that this urge towards discipleship and formation encompasses a reproducing faith. Reshaping our Christians institutions and churches in ways that socialize Christians into modes of thought and action that are consistent with the Gospel require that our communities do as Jesus did– fellowshipping with sinners and Pharisees, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and preaching to the lost wherever they may be.