Lately, I’ve been reading Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. In the world of Christian books, this is one of the most talked about of 2017 because it speaks directly to the sense of disillusionment, chaos, and general unsettling that characterizes the rapidly fragmenting church of a post-2016 election America. It is this sense of deep disorientation within American church and culture that makes this book so controversial for many readers.
His basic thesis in the book is that the contemporary cultural landscape in America is analogous to the situation that the Roman Empire faced in its last days at the dawn of the so-called “Dark Ages.” Christianity, in its traditional, orthodox expression is no longer regarded as relevant by our secular culture, and in many cases is seen as regressive and harmful to it. Dreher argues that just as St. Benedict of Nursia, in the sixth century AD formed a monastic movement that acted to renew and preserve the Christian faith through the Dark Ages, so the church in America must adopt a similar strategy to survive secularism.
It’s easy to see how this thesis could be controversial. A lot of American Christians do not want to believe that we have lost our long-enjoyed influence on culture. Indeed, the Religious Right movement of the 1980s and 90s was predicated on the idea that within our culture was a “silent Moral Majority” that was waiting to become active and reclaim America for Christian values. Indeed, the Religious Right has held a lot of influence in politics and power since its inception, but Dreher argues pretty persuasively that by and large, they have lost their relevance and even become highly morally compromised, themselves.
A great example of this that Dreher draws on regularly is the evangelical support of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. Whereas in the 90s, politically conservative evangelicals reamed President Clinton for his sexual failings in the White House (character matters!), they largely gave their support to the vulgar, equally morally compromised Donald Trump in the 2016 election. This hypocrisy is not lost on the wider culture.
Dreher’s suggestion for the church is that politics as usual will not be the way for the church to retain its integrity. While he does not advocate complete withdrawal from cultural and political engagement, as some have wrongly accused him of doing, he does suggest that the church needs to concentrate on living as a radically counter-cultural community, just as the Benedictines did. This will be the only way the church will retain its integrity, he says.
I’m not finished with the book yet, but so far, his argument is fairly compelling. Others have noted how similar he sounds to Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon in their, now classic, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. Perhaps the influence of Hauerwas and Willimon on my own theology of cultural engagement has predisposed me to like this book.
What I love about this book, so far, is that Dreher puts forward a vision that is neither a return to the misguided aims of the Religious Right (get political power and exercise it), nor a complete withdrawal from cultural engagement (leave the world alone because it’s all going to burn). His vision aims at fostering a Christianity that seeks to preserve and renew the best of our culture, yet in a way that intentionally aims to preserve Christian integrity. This is what the Benedictines did throughout the Dark Ages.
Dreher’s vision of cultural engagement is highly local. Just as the Benedictines take vows of stability, Christians can provide a powerful witness by their commitment to sharing life with local communities over the long term. He argues that the church must foster creativity and intellectual engagement in our communities. He gives us a practical strategy of what that could look like in concrete terms:
“Here’s how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make Music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department” (98).
This vision, as far as I can tell, avoids the old-school, reactionary, and often legalistic impulses of the Religious Right and fundamentalism. It also is not the Religious Right’s twin sister of progressive Christianity, whose alliance with postmodern neo-Marxism and identity politics, I predict, will ultimately cause it to cannibalize itself. Instead, it offers a concrete, local and intellectually responsible way to maintain Christian faithfulness in a post-Christian world.
Overall, the book is a pretty thought-provoking read, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in thinking about ways to be a faithful Christian in our tumultuous culture.