Book review for The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
The Benedict Option was written to present to the reader a new paradigm for the Church concerning how to relate to the culture. It is a paradigm, that while new to most Christians, is in fact a very old paradigm. It was the paradigm Benedict helped create to help those Christians who witnessed the destruction of the collapse of the Western state of the Roman Empire to navigate the cultural changes it created. Dreher believes that the Church is witnessing the biggest cultural paradigm shift since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and that this shift is irreversible. Dreher also believes the paradigm Benedict created to answer the ancient shift will also be the remedy today.
In chapter 1 he gives a brief description of the contemporary situation. He paints a picture of a contemporary Christianity that is very shallow and that is being overrun by a cultural flood. The church in America has long thought of this flood as simply something external that was imposed by “Liberal elites” that could be fixed by law or politics. According to Dreher, the cultural shift is much deeper than this. The culture has shifted on a fundamental level that cannot be reversed. The shifting of these foundations has not only driven the church out of the public square but left it without a safe place even within the borders of its institutions as much of the church has been infiltrated with humanistic philosophies that are alien to Christ.
In chapter 2 he lays out his narrative on how we got to this place we are living now. Dreher believes that we have been slowly moving towards this place throughout the modern period. He cites five developments that he believes led us to this place:
- In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality
- The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century
- The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy
- The Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760–1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
- The Sexual Revolution (1960–present)
Chapter 3 is Dreher’s introduction to the rule of Benedict, which emphasizes the attributes of Order, Prayer, Work, Asceticism, Stability, Community, Hospitality, and Balance. The were the attributes that Benedict used to develop the monasteries and became the template for the monastic movements
Chapter 4 lays out a fresh approach to Christian political involvement. Dreher documents the fall of the values coalition, and what can still be done through traditional politics. Dreher then spends the remainder or the chapter what he calls antipolitical politics, but is better known as a parallel polis. This is where the church become its own self-sustaining community within a community.
Chapter 5 continues the thread in chapter 4, with an emphasis on creating a Christian community around the church as the focal point of the culture. Dreher suggests that application of the rule of Benedict and a return to the past will provide the remedy here. In particular, Dreher suggests that Christians learn the disciplines of asceticism, that churches tighten on discipline, and that the church’s apologetic include both propositional truth and beauty and goodness in their lifestyle. Dreher concludes, that in pursuing this type of community in a world hostile to it, we must be prepared to embrace exile and martyrdom.
In Chapter 6 Dreher provides practical advice for implementing a Christian culture with the church as it’s locus. The remainder of the book continues the thread on practical application. In Chapter 7 Dreher makes the case for classical education. By classical education he means education in the Greek and Roman classics as part of the history of Western civilization. Chapter 8 Dreher suggests that Christians may soon be forced out of professional occupations and that we be prepared for manual labor and to do jobs that are lower paying. Dreher suggests the need to be entrepreneurial and form our own economic and employment networks. In Chapter 9 Dreher writes about sex and the need for Christians to be both counter-cultural and also present a positive view of biblical sexuality. Chapter 10 Dreher suggests that technology is not morally neutral, but something that is, at best, a dangerous servant. He suggests limitation on technology use as the best course.
An Evangelical Take on the Benedict option
There is much of value in The Benedict Option. Dreher’s analysis of the contemporary culture is spot on as the culture has shifted irreversibly. We are not going to “restore traditional values.” The values coalition is DEAD. Dreher suggests that Christian take a more libertarian approach to traditional politics - specifically in protecting religious liberty of all. This approach is much sounder than the culture wars being fought. I believe, however, that the window is closing on this as well. Most people do not have a principled view of liberty (or anything beyond their cultural situation). The societies of the West have shifted to identity politics where community identification and group rights trump individual rights.
Freedom of conscience has become a dirty word. Most will acquiesce to the death of freedom of conscience, even those sympathetic will capitulate once they realize that the state and corporate elites are united against it. Very few will sacrifice their platforms, their careers, or their wealth for principle. Vice-President Pence, while governor of Indiana, sought to strengthen religious liberty protection. When his corporate masters decided against it, he bowed low at their feet.
Dreher rightly contests that the modern church in America has the wrong paradigm. The current paradigm is the paradigm that drive corporate communications empires. It is a paradigm that revolves around individual entities developing a brand and building platforms to support and promote the brand. A brand is simply a name, and the platform represents one’s ability to reach others. This platform building process involves circular reinforcement. The platform promotes the brand and the brand draws attention to the platform.
The problem with this method is that building platforms and promoting brands carries a high cost. It costs a lot of money to build to scale. While it is easy I the digital age to reach a few hundred friends and family, it is much more difficult to reach millions. As control of “the power bases” of society, and particularly communications, has become more centralized; the result is that fewer gatekeepers control access to the information pipe. As of this writing, six corporations control 90% of the worlds communications. With this type of centralized control, it becomes increasingly necessary to compromise to be marketable to those who control the keys to the gates. This makes individualistic grassroots opposition almost impossible.
This pressure to compromise to those elites who control the information flow most often results in compromising or watering down to make the message more palatable to those who can provide platforms, power, and position. The rationale for this is invariably that once one gets power, they can then use that power to accomplish good. The problem is that such compromises condition one to love wickedness and corrupt ways, so that by the time they have the power to do good they no longer have the will to do good.
Evangelicalism in America has long relied on the concept of co-belligerence in building platforms. Co-belligerence involves limited cooperation with unbelievers along common lines to accomplish a task. When Evangelicalism had a more robust internal culture, the strength of that culture served as an anchor against becoming compromised by co-belligerency. Evangelicalism has lost much of this. While retaining a kernel of theology and spirituality, it has systematically borrowed from these co-belligerents for their world-view. Evangelicals have borrowed from the secular world in all areas of life outside of theology and increasingly integrated elements outside of Christ as part of the foundation of her power. Specifically, Conservative Evangelicals have relied on a co-belligerency with crony capitalists that developed over the abolition of slavery. So-called “progressive” Evangelicals and mainline denominations have aligned with various factions of Socialism. The result is that the various factions of Evangelicalism have increasingly become married to Big Business and Big Government rather than to Christ.
The breaking point that has led to where we now are is that the crony capitalist part of the Conservative co-belligerency has switched teams and have joined the Cultural Marxists in opposing us. They have joined the Cultural Marxists due to a successful lobbying campaign by the LGBQT movement. This is the good news. The bad news is that these movements are bent on persecution of anyone who does not unconditionally surrender to every facet of their agenda. Cultural Marxism is increasingly dominating both sides of the aisle and has consensus support among corporate and bureaucratic elites. Christians looking to platform building as a foundation now have to scramble for sponsors. Continuation of this current paradigm will mean either extinction or going to bed with the devil. Neither is a suitable posture for the Church of God
What Dreher advocates is to build robust communities. He is not advocating retreat to a ghetto, but to build complete, self-sustaining cultures that would serve as enlightened cities on hills. I drove through some neighborhoods in the Highlands in Louisville, KY, the other day on my way to the church where my niece got married. These neighborhoods have very robust communities full of activity that can be seen from the street, giving them a very distinctive atmosphere. This community is very far Left, and very much embracing of the gay culture. A close look at groups who have disproportionate power shows that they invariably began as robust internal communities with self-sustaining cultures. Jews and homosexuals have such communities whereas Evangelicals no longer have such communities. The groups who have strong, distinctive communities are the ones who dominate the primary culture. In the 17-18th centuries, Evangelicalism had such communities, and as a result, dominated the culture. We lost the culture war because we only brought theology (mostly poor and illiterate at that) and politics; our enemies also brought science (co-called) art, entertainment, commerce, and technology to the table in interactions with the broader culture. We did not lose because their meta-narrative was better than ours but because we did not bring a meta-narrative and undermined our own position because we borrowed from their meta-narrative.
If one wishes to engage and reclaim the culture, one must develop places that can incubate a robust culture. These serve as a nursery for renaissance, reformation, and revival. When Jesus instructed us to a salt and light, light was also represented in terms of community. We are to be an enlightened city on a hill. As a city on a hill cannot be hid, so when the light of the gospel shines through a robust, distinctive community. If this works on a purely sociological level, how much more will it work when accompanied by the supernatural manifestations, wisdom and power of God in our midst.
Dreher cites the resistance to Communism as a modern example of such community. Such a community was dubbed a parallel polis. One could also think of it as a state within a state. Such communities would develop systems and methods that address every need of life based on a robust meta-narrative that is the foundation of the culture. These communities, through their art, their entertainment, and other products of their culture, show the value of their narrative in interacting with the broader culture.
Evangelicalism became great in the West precisely because she has a robust narrative that produced a robust culture. Evangelicals made revolutionary contribution to science, technology, benevolence, medicine, liberty, and a host of other areas.
Dreher write the Benedict Option from a perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy. As such, this book reflect his bias. Any Evangelical implementation will be significantly different than what was presented in the Benedict Option. Dreher argues that the Reformation resulted in a collapse of religious unity and religious authority that led to relativism. The roots of relativism are actually traceable to the counter-reformation. The polemic of the Roman Church against the protestant coupled the idea that people cannot access the meaning of the text with special pleading to exempt the Magisterium from this problem. It is special; pleading because the Roman Catholic apologists do not supply a rational basis for why the Magisterium is different from the rest of the body of Christ. Because the Magisterium was protected from the relativistic effects of denying individuals access to the text only by special pleading, it would only be a matter of time before people would lose faith in the Magisterium and embrace relativism.
There is one kernel of truth to what Dreher says here: The Protestants were …protest-ants. While they broke away from Rome and had just theological grounds, they did not fully replace the Roman Catholic paradigm with an alternative paradigm. While they had a very robust theology, they did not a have parallel polis like the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox had. They “copied and pasted” components of that paradigm not directly pertaining to theology from other sources and outsources many of these things institutionally. This worked well when Protestants and Evangelicals had a more robust culture and controlled these institutions, but when they control pressures came against the church that jeopardized control of these institutions, it brought great harm. For example, the Scopes Monkey trial was a disaster for Evangelicals. It resulted in Christian losing control of the scientific community in the culture to more secular minded people, and also resulted in the bi-furcation of Evangelicalism into two camps: the Fundamentalists and the Neo-Evangelicals. The Fundamentalists retreated from the culture while Neo-Evangelicals engaged culture. Neither sought to create a parallel polis as their internal culture; therefore, neither are equipped to battle the current cultural flood.
The church today needs to develop a parallel polis as our home base culture. We need robust physical communities and also use technology to connect us in community portals such as ChristianNetGuide. These communities need to be self-sustaining and capable of surviving persecution. They need to places of both spiritual nourishing and equipping for any area of life through both training and networking. We need these robust communities to be able to support spiritual, ministerial, educational, and business networks to strengthen both the universal body of Christ and local Christian communities. Such communities have always been the key to cultural resurgence, and will be even more so in a society where identity politics reigns supreme. Building such communities is not only conducive to cultural resurgence, but it is also key to igniting the fire of great revival and great awakening.