Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, debuted at No. 7 on The New York Times Bestseller List his past weekend; it was already a bestseller on Amazon. Not bad for a book addressed to conservative Christians.
Numerous reviews have been published, with praise, objections, and a combination of both. As author and professor Karen Swallow Prior has pointed out (in what I think is the best review so far) is that The Benedict Option has already become a kind of Rorschach test for how anyone who reads it views American culture. If you think the culture is in serious decay, this book will make more sense than if you think absolute freedom of the individual is a positive thing.
I’ve gone back and looked at a number of reviews, including one by David Brooks in The New York Times and one at the conservative Christian online blog The Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics. It’s clear to me that a lot of people are reading into the book things that simply aren’t there, although I do agree with Brook that the book may be the most important religious book of the year. Dreher isn’t arguing that Christians abandon the culture and seal themselves up in conservative Amish-type communities, or build a Christian ark to escape the coming deluge. He’s not even saying that the culture is beyond redemption.
What I keep coming back to is who he wrote this book for – traditional, orthodox Christians. People like me. People who have watched a sea change in American culture over the past 50 years, have sought all kinds of ways of dealing with that change, and are now seeing a rising tide of attitudes, anger, prejudice, and dismissal aimed at religious freedom, traditional Christian belief, and even what was the law a scant three years ago or less. People like me who see crudeness, viciousness, and incivility becoming a commonplace across society, to the point where the political chasm separating the right and left (the center is long gone) may be unbridgeable.
Dreher considers where this sea change has come from; it’s not something that happened overnight or in the last five years. It’s been brewing since the 1960s and the sexual revolution, the technological revolution, and the revolution that has enthroned absolute individual freedom as society’s hallmark. These changes permeate our schools and universities, our mainstream and social media, our corporate boardrooms, and our politics. The culture war is over, he argues (and I would agree), no matter who sits in the White House. “Conventional American politics cannot fix what is wrong in our society and culture,” he writes. “The disorder in American public life derives from disorder within the American soul.”
Traditional Christians will find themselves increasingly isolated and disparaged. He suggests that discrimination is going to come, particularly in those professions that will require acceptance of beliefs that Christians will not be able to accept (comparable to what the early Christians faced with burning incense to Caesar).
He points to the Rule of St. Benedict, promulgated some 1,500 years ago, as a directional pointer for Christians, not to withdraw from society but to train themselves and their children to deal with society with the Christian faith permeating their lives. If we don’t know how to be a light in the darkness, the darkness is going to be overwhelming.
And so Dreher looks at education, work, technology, politics, the church, and more. He talks to people who have been implementing the Benedict Option, from monks and families in Italy to schools in Maryland and Texas. He doesn’t recommend some idealistic philosophy or program, but things that are already underway and working.
Dreher, who writes for American Conservative, is the author of Crunchy Cons (2006); The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013); and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015). He is a Greek Orthodox, and lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
I can note that we both attended the same university, LSU, about 15 years apart. He describes what he didn’t get in college – the classical education of Western civilization – which is what I did get 15 years before. Those intervening years – 1973 to 1988 – were a crucial time for change in education, and not for the better.
The Benefit Option is a kind of epistle to orthodox Christians. It is written with care and concern. It’s written with understanding and love. And it’s written with keen insight into what is tearing the culture apart and the forces behind it.
I wish I found it to be exaggerated, untrue, and off-the-mark. Instead I found it to be like looking in a mirror, and realizing that I have to be part of the change. It’s a daunting task.