Much has already been written about Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, a great deal of which reflects the preconceptions of the reviewers more than the contents of the book. Here is my take on it.
The Big Picture
Dreher’s starting premise is that the culture wars are over, and those holding to traditional values have lost. Dreher expects the political and cultural environment to become increasingly hostile to people of faith. His solution is to learn lessons from Benedictine monasticism to help us develop community structures that will enable us to bring up our children in the faith and will provide mutual support in the event of job loss or persecution for living by Christian ethics. Contrary to many reviewers, Dreher is not advocating a complete withdrawal from culture or politics, but instead is arguing for the development of intentional communities, whether formal or informal, that can stand as an alternative to the mainstream culture, enable us to raise our children in the faith, and attract others to the Kingdom.
Looking at the Details
A few specific points are worth noting.
- Dreher’s Account of How We Got Here. Dreher’s analysis of contemporary culture is powerful and largely compelling. His history is not. If you’re interested in why, keep reading. If not, skip to point 2.
Dreher offers a fairly common explanation of the roots of the crisis focused on a medieval philosophy called nominalism. Nominalists did not believe that things have a common nature, though they may have similarities with each other. For example, dogs have similarities to each other based on biology, but they do not have a common canine nature. Dreher claims that nominalism replaced realism as the dominant philosophy in Europe by the fifteenth century, with disastrous effects today. Yet this is simply false. Aside from the question of whether nominalism leads where he says it does (a direction medieval nominalists would have rejected), nominalism was popular only among Franciscans and mostly in Germany and England; elsewhere, realism dominated, and at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, the realist position won in the Catholic world. So no, nominalism did not overturn realism.
He makes a similar mistake with Pico della Mirandola, the Renaissance thinker that popularized the ancient Greek quotation, “man is the measure of all things.” In context, this does not mean what Dreher takes it to mean. Pico believed that the world consisted of a Great Chain of Being from God to the lowest created things. Man’s unique dignity was that by choosing what we love, we can determine our own place in this hierarchy: if we choose to love God, we can rise higher than the angels; if we love gold, we descend below the level of the beasts. In this way, we “measure” the whole hierarchy of being; we can span the full range of the creation by our choices and our love. So no, Pico’s philosophy does not lead to secularism or cut God out of the universe and human life. It may have been misused that way by nineteenth century historians (whom Dreher follows), but that development is much later than Dreher realizes.
There are other examples I could cite, but like many other Christian social critics, the further back in time he goes, the worse his history gets.
- The Title. Dreher’s choice of Benedictine monasticism as a model for today is based on a quotation from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who said that Western culture has lost its way, and that that people who want to live a life of traditional virtue will need to withdraw from mainstream society in much the way St. Benedict and his monks did in the sixth century. Yet though Benedict’s Rule and Benedictine spirituality have much to recommend them, Dreher ignores the single most conspicuous element of the Rule: it has the monks living in a closed community which may exercise hospitality, but otherwise has little to do with outside world. In playing off MacIntyre’s comment, Dreher has led many of his critics into the logical assumption that his proposal involves withdrawal from the world. Dreher himself says over and over that this is not his intention, but his choice to discuss his ideas in the context of monasticism has contributed to the misunderstanding of what he is saying.
- What to Do. Dreher’s concrete suggestions about what we should do are wide ranging and well thought out. He deals with politics, the church, community, education, work, sexuality, and technology, in many cases using concrete examples of groups that influenced his thinking in these areas. This is the most important and valuable part of the book. My summary would be, take your Christian faith seriously and make it the center of your life without compromise. While I do not agree with all of his specific recommendations (and, I suspect, neither will most readers), they are all worth serious consideration. Even if Dreher is wrong about the trajectory of the culture, he raises important challenges to the complacent, comfortable cultural Christianity in America. And if he’s right, we are going to need the kind of intentional community he describes if Christianity is going to survive in America. (And before you tell me that God will preserve the church, central Asia once had a strong Christian presence that was exterminated by the Mongols after their conversion to Islam, and for the last 600 plus years the church has been almost entirely absent in the region. What makes us think it couldn’t happen here? The church does not rise and fall on America, or for that matter, on Western culture.)
The Bottom Line
The Benedict Option is a challenging book that should inspire some soul searching among American Christians. It should also spur some creative thinking about ways we should be living as Christians in the world. I would recommend reading it with some serious friends who are interested in action, not just ideas, debates, or complaints. Just don’t learn your history from it.