Finding meaning in a disordered world
Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation (Penguin Random House, 2017, 255 pages) has caused quite a stir this year among reviewers, critics, and readers.
Some have applauded what they consider Dreher’s thesis: that the United States — and nearly all Western nations — have abandoned their Christian roots and that, as a consequence, Christians must create a culture separate from that of the secularist mainstream.
Other commentators have disagreed with Dreher, claiming that Christians need to embrace the mainstream culture and to bring their beliefs into play in that arena.
Some of these critics on both sides of the aisle have, I think, missed some of the subtleties of Dreher’s arguments.
Before examining those arguments, we must understand what Dreher means by the Benedict Option. Benedict was a sixth-century monk credited with founding both the Benedictine Order and Christian monasticism in general. He established monasteries, wrote out a Rule, still in print and practiced today, as to how the monks were to live, and provided islands of hope and refuge in a Europe devastated by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. His monks and monasteries help rescue and resuscitate Western Civilization.
Dreher advocates the spirit of such communities as medicine for our present disordered age. He spends the first part of The Benedict Option examining the difficulties Christians face in today’s chaotic market of ideas and beliefs, and then proposes specific ways for believers to keep and bolster their faith. In chapters bearing such titles as “The Idea of a Christian Village,” “Education as Christian Formation,” and “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture,” Dreher stresses the importance of family and community in the maintenance of faith. He particularly reminds readers of the failure of politics to address the “threats to the integrity of families and communities.” In terms of restoring Christianity to the marketplace of ideas, and in regard to the well being of families, politics — according to Dreher — is a dead end.
In all of these arguments, Dreher employs specific examples of families and communities already living out the Benedict Option. In Charlottesville, Virginia, for example, a group of male students at the University of Virginia founded “Chancellot,” a home on Chancellor Street aimed at intentional Christian living. In California, Calee Lee started Xist Publish, a digital children’s book company that has encouraged Christian writers and artists, and has produced more than 200 books for children. As Lee told Dreher in regard to LuLaRoe, a clothing manufacturer founded by a Mormon who has successfully created modest but attractive clothing for women, “You can be frustrated with the fashion industry, or you can be the fashion industry.”
Although he does issue warnings to Christians about trials they may face in the near future — a part of one chapter is titled “Prepare to Be Poorer and More Marginalized” — Dreher never advocates, as certain of his critics have suggested, some sort of total withdrawal from the problems of the world. He is no starry eyed dreamer or idealist, but rather a man who is offering his fellow believers a long-acclaimed Christian ambition, a way to be “in the world, but not of the world.” He offers gritty advice to fellow believers about how to follow their faith, but never takes his eyes from the central beliefs of that faith. Some of those who have read and critiqued his ideas have missed some of these nuances.
Readers of a different faith or of no faith whatsoever may also find inspiration in The Benedict Option. In Crunchy Cons, written in 2006, Dreher identified himself and others as conservative, but conservatives with a concern for the environment, with organic foods, with the “Small Is Beautiful” idea in everything from government to business. In that book and in The Benedict Option, Dreher offers thoughts and options that might appeal to a broader audience, to conservatives yes, but also to libertarians of whatever faith and even to those on the left who recognize that government and politics often fail between their promises and their performance.
An example of the universality of some of Dreher’s arguments: in the chapter titled “Man and the Machine,” Dreher examines the deleterious effects of technology on human beings. He points out the intimacy that has developed between us and our machines — our smart phones, our computers — and how overindulgence in this technology cuts us off from human experience. As Dreher points out, Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer, and some other Silicon Valley folks recognized the damage that could be done by the various devices they invented, especially to the young, and so forbade their children to own iPods and limited their access to other gadgets.
Near the end of his book, Dreher writes that the Benedict Option “… is a way of seeing the world and of living in the world that undermines modernity’s big lie: that humans are nothing more than ghosts in a machine, and we are free to adjust its settings in any way we like.”
He ends that same chapter with this quote from Wendell Berry: “It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”
Dreher’s book is a clarion cry for all people to live as creatures, as fully human beings, and not as cogs in a machine.