American orthodox Christians are besieged. We are inhabiting an increasingly secular society in which atheism is at record levels. The Sexual Revolution has culminated in rampant divorce, millions of aborted children, and pervasive consumption of pornography. The LGBT movement has succeeded in winning the acceptance of mainstream society, and is seeking to cast conservative Christians out of polite society one wedding cake at a time.
Western civilization is entering a post-Christian Dark Age, argues Rod Dreher in his controversial and popular new book, The Benedict Option. This diagnosis is not just based on recent events like the 2016 election or the Obergefell decision, but on a steady decline of Christianity in the West over hundreds of years.
How are orthodox Christians (the author includes Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and conservative protestants) supposed to live in such dark times? Dreher finds his answer in St. Benedict and his rules for monastic living.
During the last days of the Roman Empire, Benedict traveled around Italy establishing insulated Christian communities, or monasteries, which provided a nucleus from which Christian civilization could survive the lawless barbarity then engulfing Europe. “These monasteries kept faith and learning alive within their walls, evangelized barbarian peoples, and taught them how to pray, to read, to plant crops, and to build things.”
“Benedict’s example gives us hope today,” Dreher continues, “because it reveals what a small cohort of believers….can accomplish” through living out their faith in Christ.
One of the main arguments hurled against Dreher’s Benedict Option is his apparent argument for Christians to forsake the secular world. How can we square Christ’s commission to make disciples of all nations with a call to retreat from society? Buying hundreds of acres in Montana, constructing a wall, and building the ideal Christian society is the stuff of Kool-Aid drinking doomsday cults.
This criticism, however, betrays someone who has not read past the book cover. “The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world,” Dreher points out, “but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is.” Instead of calling on Christians to form communes, Dreher is simply asking Christians to question how they participate in mainstream culture. After diagnosing the current state of modern society and reviewing the history of St. Benedict, Dreher spends the last two-thirds of the book addressing how modern Christians should approach politics, church, family, community, education, careers, sexuality, and technology.
In all of these areas, Dreher persuasively argues how modern Western society is based on ideas that run in direct opposition to Christianity. Drawing from the wisdom of St. Benedict and modern day monks, he gives strategies and resources for Christians to consider.
In politics, Dreher suggests that Christians focus less on the traditional fights in which groups like the Christian Coalition or Moral Majority have long engaged. “Benedict Option politics begin with the recognition that Western society is post-Christian and that absent a miracle, there is no hope of reversing this condition in the foreseeable future.” Instead, Christians should narrow their attention to matters of religious liberty. A robust First Amendment will give Christians breathing room to create their own institutions and society separate from larger secular one.
Two of the strongest chapters concern education and technology. After demonstrating the failure of public schools to appropriately pass on Western and Christian values to new generations, Dreher introduces the reader to the Classical Christian education model which is exploding across the country. He also addresses the negative effect that pervasive technology is having on our faith and family, and discusses ways in which Christians should consider restructuring their lives away from constant entertainment and immersion in pop culture.
Chapter by chapter, Dreher raises important questions and gives wise solutions to American Christians who may find themselves adrift. We must, he argues, reevaluate the assumption that a Christian can order his or her life towards Christ while also going along with mainstream culture.
But while Dreher’s message for modern Christians is a good one, it is certainly not new.
The Bible makes clear that Christians will find themselves at odds with the world. “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as ts own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world,” Jesus says in John 15:19.
In Romans 12:2, Paul also warns Christians, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
In Chapter 1 of The Benedict Option, Dreher likens the current trends of secularism, consumerism, materialism, and promiscuity to the Great Flood.
“Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to … stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.”
Dreher invokes apocalyptic language to describe a society entering a new Dark Age. To be sure, recent cultural developments are discouraging, and the shattering of any American moral consensus over the last fifty years will challenge the American church in new ways. Secular, mainstream culture has always been broken, though. Christians have always inhabited a fallen world.
The storm has always raged. It may seem darker, the thunder more powerful, and the lightning more piercing than ever before, but it is still the same storm.
And our ark was, is, and will always be Jesus Christ.
When viewed in light of Scripture and 2,000 years of church history, the Benedict Option isn’t an option at all. It is a command to every Christian.