For some time now, Rod Dreher has advanced the phrase “the Benedict Option” in First Things, his blog at The American Conservative, and elsewhere. Yet it has never been clear what choosing the Benedict Option actually entails. Some people take it to be a call to quietism or withdrawal from an irredeemable society, and thus propose more active options for Christian engagement. If they are right about what it is, the Benedict Option would be misguided. Dreher himself, in an earlier articulation of it, says it is the charge to be distinctly Christian and countercultural in the face of cultural hostility “even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream” (italics Dreher’s). But that already has a name: Christianity.
In his new book, The Benedict Option, Dreher makes it clear that the heart of the phrase is a feeling of alarm and alienation at no longer being at home in Western society, coupled with an intuition that traditional Christians have failed and need to change course. In his view, “Christian conservatives [can] no longer live business-as-usual lives in America . . . We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.” Christian conservatives have been “routed,” and the left “is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.” Dreher’s mission is “to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time.”
Dreher seeks to offer a critique of modern culture and to tell inspiring stories of creative countercultural Christians. His stories and spiritual counsel are on the whole sound and wise. Yet, his protests to the contrary notwithstanding, his book offers a standard decline-and-fall lament, taking readers from the glory of the High Middle Ages to moral and cultural decay in our own time. Propelled more by feelings than by slow, careful thought, this account is too swift and lopsided, lacking appreciation for the legitimate goods that have resulted from intellectual developments after the thirteenth century. Likewise, Dreher’s analysis of the right course for Christian political action suffers from a lack of clarity. A truly Benedictine account would correct both flaws. Read the rest at The Public Discourse.