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Theologians Were Arguing About the Benedict Option 35 Years Ago

March 13th, 2017 | 13 min read

By Brad East

There’s been quite a bit of controversy lately. Perhaps you’ve heard about it. The uproar surrounds a set of proposals regarding the state of American society and the character of the church in its midst. Let me give you some select quotes to set the stage.

On politics today:

Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition.

But what to do in such a situation?

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. . . . We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

Ah, the titular monk makes his appearance. But how does this relate to the church?

[I]f the church is to serve our liberal society or any society, it is crucial for Christians to regain an appropriate sense of separateness from that society. . . . [T]he most important social task of Christians is to be nothing less than a community capable of forming people with virtues sufficient to witness to God’s truth in the world. Put as directly as I can, it is not the task of the church to try to develop social theories or strategies to make America work; rather the task of the church in this country is to become a polity that has the character necessary to survive as a truthful society.

But what does “separateness” mean? Does it imply bunker-down, compound sectarianism?

The fact that the first task of the church is to be itself is not a rejection of the world or a withdrawal ethic, but a reminder that Christians must serve the world on their own terms; otherwise the world would have no means to knows itself as the world.

But how can this be true, socially and politically speaking? How can seclusion be service?

[A] religion . . . is likely to contribute more to the future of humanity if it preserves its own distinctiveness and integrity than if it yields to the homogenizing tendencies associated with liberal[ism]. This conclusion is paradoxical: Religious communities are likely to be practically relevant in the long run to the degree that they do not first ask what is either practical or relevant, but instead concentrate on their own . . . outlooks and forms of life. . . . It was thus, rather than by intentional effort, that biblical religion helped produce democracy and science, as well as other values Westerners treasure; and it is in similarly unimaginable and unplanned ways, if at all, that biblical religion will help save the world (for Western civilization is now world civilization) from the demonic corruptions of these same values.

But can this view be defended biblically, on theological grounds?

The church precedes the world epistemologically. We know more fully from Jesus Christ and in the context of the confessed faith than we know in other ways. . . . The church precedes the world as well axiologically, in that the lordship of Christ is the center which must guide the critical value choices, so that we may be called to subordinate or even to reject those values which contradict Jesus. . . . The alternative community discharges a modeling mission. The church is called to be now what the world is called to be ultimately. . . . The church is thus not chaplain or priest to the powers running the world: she is called to be a microcosm of the wider society, not only as an idea, but also in her function.

One can certainly see what the fuss has been about in recent weeks and months. This diagnosis of American culture and politics and the accompanying prescription is radical and bold, a call to action and a profound challenge to the status quo.

The only thing is that these words were not written by the author of The Benedict Option. They were written 35 years ago by four academics: Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck, and John Howard Yoder.

So how did we get from there to here, and why the hubbub over Rod Dreher today when these scholars anticipated his proposal decades ago?

Rewinding the Benedict Option

One way to view the ongoing dust-up over Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” proposal is as a confirmation of James Davison Hunter’s thesis about cultural change. In his 2010 book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, Hunter argues that cultural change rarely if ever happens from the “bottom up,” but rather primarily from the “top down.”

Hunter is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia as well as a Christian, and he writes the book from that perspective. He is responding to what he perceives to be a kind of obsession on the part of American Christians in the last half century, that of “changing the culture (for Christ).” He distinguishes between different aspects of national life:

  • law
  • economy
  • politics
  • civil society

Culture is related to but distinct from these areas of common life. His view is twofold: if Christians want to be agents of cultural change, they’ve been going about it the wrong way; but Christians shouldn’t care so much about being in the business of cultural change in the first place.

Of interest to us is Hunter’s account of top-down cultural change. His argument is simple. Social capital is real, and it is unevenly distributed. The more you have, the more power you have to affect the culture. Moreover, it is not individuals but institutions that are the principal sites and instruments of cultural power and its exercise. Individuals come and go, but institutions abide. Finally, social capital is not equivalent to raw numbers (of people) or literal financial capital. In some ephemeral but not illusory way, a car or book or film that sells more than a more “prestigious” equivalent lacks the social capital, the cultural power, of the latter. Prestige and elite status count far more than popularity or objective quality.

Academic tomes take two or three decades to filter into popular debate, but they do filter down.

How does this claim cash out? Think of Hunter’s proposal as a matter of “trickle down culture.” (James K. A. Smith makes good use of this image in his essay “The Devil Reads Derrida.”) What appears to be most culturally relevant at any one time is in fact far downstream from its actual source. And the source, often as not, turns out to be a little-read tome written two or three decades ago in jargon-laden academese, now collecting dust at your local college library. Hunter argues that one of the chief wellsprings of cultural change is none other than this sort of unprepossessing volume.

For its author, unbeknownst to you, taught for years at an Ivy League university, and this book was her life’s work. When it was published, all her peers and all her former students throughout the country read it, reviewed it, cited it in their work, repurposed its ideas in their thought, and taught it to their students. Why wouldn’t they, after all—it was written by a professor at an Ivy League university, and, don’t you know, Ivy League universities matter. You’ve got to be up on what’s cutting edge in the field, after all.

So the elite professor at the elite university writes a book that no one is reading in the local book club or church small group. But somehow, infinitesimally, the book’s ideas leak out, trickle down, year by year, through ways visible and invisible. And, lo and behold, 20 or 30 years after the book’s publication, “everyone” is using its vocabulary, bickering over its ideas, and intuiting its insights more by osmosis than direct encounter.

Instead of academic journals, it becomes magazines and journalists who are reviewing and popularizing its ideas. Then someone comes along and writes a book for the masses trading on the ideas originally proposed in the academic tome, only now the ideas are getting national coverage, eliciting commentary in the press, and generating hot takes on every side.

The point is not that popularizers—in this case Dreher—are doing anything pernicious or untoward. On the contrary. The point is simply that this is the way that cultural production works, the way that ideas are disseminated and circulated in society (or at least, a society like ours).

And using Hunter, I think we can step back from the (ongoing) fray and reflect on questions that he raises for us regarding Dreher and the Benedict Option.

What Hunter Teaches Us About the BenOp

First, is the whole thing predetermined? That is, has this very disputation about political liberalism, American decadence, and “Christianity after Christendom” already been played out—and are we therefore simply watching a replay of what already took place in the philosophical and theological academy in the 1980s and ’90s?

What did happen, anyway? Well, the church-as-culture view came to be called “postliberalism” (after the subtitle of Lindbeck’s book The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age), or the “Yale School,” since Lindbeck and his colleague Hans Frei were both professors at Yale, and Hauerwas was a former student of theirs. Like Dreher, their ideas met fierce opposition.

Perhaps the most famous was University of Chicago Christian ethicist James Gustafson’s 1985 address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, titled “The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church and the University.” Ever since, Hauerwas has reveled in paraphrasing Gustafson’s description of him as a “sectarian fideistic tribalist.” On the theology side of things, the controversy between Yale and Chicago came to a certain kind of end in Kathryn Tanner’s 1997 book Theories of Culture, which, while quite critical of Lindbeckian postliberalism, demolished Tillich-and-Tracy-style correlationism from the left flank, as it were.

On the ethics side of things, Jeffrey Stout published Democracy and Tradition in 2004, as an explicit rebuke to those he termed the “new traditionalists,” particularly MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and John Milbank. Neither Tanner nor Stout concluded the disputes begun in the early 1980s, but in a way each is a terminus to seasons of controversy that have largely died out. The “schools” have faded and the ideas have been appropriated, modified, or rejected. (See also Paul DeHart’s 2006 book The Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology.)

I rehearse this history in order to say: The ideas excerpted above regarding America, virtue, church, and politics have been hashed out. Hunter advises us that our conversations today are downstream from their heady academic source years ago. But is the direction and conclusion of our conversations also downstream from theirs? If so, then best to be done with it. If not—and I do not know what Hunter would say about this—but if not, then what might we learn from the last 35 years of academic discourse regarding these issues that could aid—both in substance and in civility—our discourse about them today?

Second, there is vehement disagreement between different sides of the Benedict Option regarding whether “Christians have lost the culture (wars).” One side says: Look around, it’s a post-Christian culture; every relevant institution with power in our society is at least post-Christian, if not explicitly anti-Christian. The other side says: What world are you living in? White evangelicals just determined the outcome of a presidential election—oh, and by the way, the man one heartbeat away from the presidency is himself a conservative white evangelical. Post-Christian America is a fever dream and a fantasy.

Hunter is very helpful here. For both sides are right. The non-alarmist, because it is inarguably true that, as things stand, self-identified Christians are the majority in both the land and the legislatures. Nor is anyone getting rounded up and thrown to the lions for confessing faith in Jesus. How then can the alarmist also be right? Because, as Hunter teaches us, where things stand in a culture is always, in a manner of speaking, the afterlife or deferred result of where things stand in the elite institutions that drive the culture. And it is inarguably true that those institutions are essentially post-Christian, indeed in many ways opposed to Christian faith.

Viewed in this way, one can affirm that Christians have lost the “culture wars” (a term coined by Hunter himself—though not an endorsement of their prosecution), while affirming simultaneously that those wars are still being played out before our very eyes. The situation is analogous, in other words, to World War II, when fighting continued in parts of Europe following Germany’s surrender. Culturally speaking, news doesn’t travel fast.

The election of Trump and Pence, therefore, far from a muscular reassertion of conservative white Christianity’s social capital in America today, is instead the spasmodic last gasp of a once virulent but now spent and dying body.

Third and finally, there is a certain irony in the Benedict Option and the controversy surrounding it confirming Hunter’s thesis about cultural change. Because the Benedict Option is all about hunkering down during the coming dark ages and, just thereby, being the most potent long-term force for change possible. One might say that the Benedict Option is a counter-thesis to Hunter’s claim, since Dreher’s strategic withdrawal, while affirming the need for and value of institutions, cedes the elite spheres of culture to the barbarians, because they’re already running the show anyway.

The question is: If that is true, then is the game up already? And if not, then under what conditions, and by what means, can the church remain resilient in the decades to come, with unfriendly forces leading the culture’s way?

It turns out that Dreher has read Hunter, just as he has read MacIntyre. We know his answer. Whether or not it’s adequate, he’s asking the right question.

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Brad East

Brad East (PhD, Yale University) is assistant professor of theology in the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. He is the editor of Robert Jenson’s The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2019) and the author of The Doctrine of Scripture (Cascade, 2021) and The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context (Eerdmans, 2022). His articles have been published in Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Journal of Theological Interpretation, Anglican Theological Review, Pro Ecclesia, Political Theology, Restoration Quarterly, and The Other Journal; his essays and reviews have appeared in The Christian Century, Christianity Today, Comment, Commonweal, First Things, The Hedgehog Review, Living Church, Los Angeles Review of Books, Marginalia Review of Books, Mere Orthodoxy, The New Atlantis, Plough, and The Point. Further information, as well as his blog, can be found at