The Benedict Option
A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
A Review by Dwight A Moody
Benedict (480-547) was a Christian leader, writer, and community organizer of great influence. He founded a series of religious communities in Italy (later called monasteries) and wrote a guide for how monks were to live—this is called The Rule of Saint Benedict and is one of the most influential writings in the history of western Christianity. Some people attribute to this monastic movement the survival of western civilization during what used to be called the Dark Ages (generally 500-1000 of the Common Era), a period known for its demographic, cultural, and economic deterioration after the fall of the Roman Empire.
The Benedict Option is, therefore, a contemporary cultural and religious response to what author Rod Dreher asserts is a new Dark Age. It is a call for faithful Christians to retreat from the world of popular and public culture and gather into intentional communities of worship, education, work, and survival.
This book, published in 2017 to great acclaim (in some quarters), is a most accessible and articulate version of this interpretation of the United States and the impending doom. It can be summarized in two simple phrases: “Be afraid, be very afraid”: that’s one; and the other: “Get out of town!”
The book, therefore, builds upon fear, stokes fear, and uses fear to motivate people to do something. That “something” is described using the Rule of Saint Benedict. There are chapters on politics (abandon secular politics and create small subcultures that embody the values of authentic Christianity); church (abandon culture Christianity and join a worshiping congregation that uses ancient Christian liturgies); community (abandon dominant social arrangements of towns and cities and move into an intention network of families that share your values and schedule; school (abandon public schools and universities and send your kids to a Christian school or homeschool them; work (abandon work in the large secular networks, such as education, media, and corporation, and learn to use your hands to make things; sex (abandon the sexual revolution and embrace the tradition of heterosexual marriage only); and technology (abandon the cultural dependence upon computers, phones and internet and use these modern machines sparingly and cautiously).
The book gathers examples of people and groups that are doing these things, and mostly these groups are conservative Catholics, white Evangelicals, and some Orthodox. Dreher himself is an adult convert to Christianity and an active member of an Eastern Orthodox community in southern Louisiana (in the same area where he grew up).
Of course, I was inspired by the courage and resolve of the people profiled by Dreher. They remind me of the Christian commune movement that was popular when I was a young adult, largely associated with the Jesus Movement. Others have used this Benedict Option successfully for years, and here I think of Mennonite, Amish, and Shaker communities and also certain elements within the Mormon movement. Retreating into self-sustaining, self-governing compounds has always been a way for people to survive what they take as hostile environments.
And American culture is so very hostile, Dreher asserts, and this is largely a matter of sex. It is astounding how sexual ethics and sexual behavior dominate his interpretation of the danger facing Christians. Invitro fertilization, childbearing outside of wedlock, abortion, pornography, and homosexuality constitute the overarching challenge to authentic Christian living today.
There is absolutely no concern for the issues of wealth and poverty, freedom and bondage, war and peace, creation care and climate change, or violence and justice. Both the larger Christian community and certainly the global human community are discarded in favor of these small, isolated communities of like-minded people.
Dreher is a staunch cultural conservative, but he is certainly no Trumpster: “the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it” (79).
So, I agree with him on one thing! But I also support his call to prayer, spiritual discipline, communities of care, and living out a radical version of following Jesus—only I am bound by those words of our Lord articulating the incarnational mandate of the mission of God: “Go into all the world and make disciples….”