A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Ryan Speck
Rob Dreher is an excellent writer, and The Benedict Option is extraordinarily thought-provoking. It is not a light read, but challenging. Yet, it is very refreshing in many ways.
Dreher calls Christians to acknowledge we are a minority in America today, and we have lost the culture war: “The public square has been lost” (p. 9). It is time, therefore, to re-group and reconsider how we should live as God’s people. In his own words: “I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in practice. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs” (p. 3).
How is the health of the church? “Your church may be killing itself and have no idea what it’s doing. Everything may look fine on the surface, but deep down a cancer could be silently metastasizing in its bones, whose fragility will become painfully clear when put to the test” (p. 100). Consider, for example, how the church responded to the Covid crisis. Judging by the church’s response, how will we do under severe persecution?
Further, to understand our present crisis, Dreher leads his audience through a historical summary of thought that has led us to this point. This section is thick with difficult concepts and philosophy, but his points are important in order to understand the philosophy that prevails today.
Working from the example of the Benedictine Order (hence his title), Dreher commends practices such as serious and consistent Bible reading, dedicated times of prayer, hard work, proper discipline, hospitality, and living together as a true community of believers. In short, Christians today must learn to embrace communal lives of asceticism if we are to survive the onslaught of persecution that is coming.
Likewise, we must learn to view politics differently. A new Reagan will not save us. As Alexis de Tocqueville prophesied long ago, democracy cannot survive without a religious populace, who hold “shared convictions about moral truths” (p. 89). We are the slim minority now. Therefore, we must learn to be subversive in the best sense: “Think of teachers who make sure kids learn things they won’t get at government schools. Think of writers who write what they really believe and find ways to get it to the public, no matter what the cost. Think of priests and pastors who find a way to live out religious life despite condemnation and legal obstacles, and artists who don’t give a rip for an official opinion. Think of young people who decide not to care about success in society’s eyes and who drop out to pursue a life of integrity, no matter what it costs them” (p. 95).
For, “the politics of the Benedict Option assume that the disorder in American public life derives from disorder within the American soul” (p. 97). Thus, it is time to disengage from our culture (to a certain extent) in order deeply to re-engage and re-energize our souls, preparing for the arduous battle ahead. “Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul. Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires” (p. 99).
What will we be doing in our own little shires? From our religious communities, we must engage the world as strangers speaking astonishing new things to a world that has never heard the Gospel. To build those strong communities, however, we must rediscover the traditions of the past, including liturgical worship, asceticism, discipline, evangelism by beauty, and embrace the possibility of martyrdom. We cannot live as disparate, independent Christians. We need to build strong communities, including strong homes, neighborhoods (parishes), and social networks—including across ecumenical lines.
Likewise, we must focus on a truly, thoroughly Christian education for the next generations. Such an education is oriented towards Christian character, makes children literate in the Scriptures, and teaches the history of western civilization. To obtain such an education, Christians must take their children out of public school and must think critically about any so-called “Christian School.” For, “the trite theological education many received at Christian school will serve more as a vaccination against taking the faith seriously than an incentive for it” (p. 159). Consider, then, the options of a classical school or homeschooling, where possible.
Furthermore, we must prepare for hard labor. We must understand and embrace the meaning and purpose of work and refuse the temptation, therefore, to compromise our beliefs in order to prosper our businesses—and increasing persecution will come against Christian businesses. Therefore, we must be discerning where to draw the line, remain bold, and look for alternatives. Namely, we must become entrepreneurs, buy Christian products, build Christian employment networks, and rediscover the trades—all while preparing to become poorer and increasingly marginalized.
One particular battle Christians must fight is the sexual revolution, which “has demolished the fundamental Christian conception of society, of families, and of the nature of human beings” (p. 202). To fight effectively, we must understand a proper theology of sex. We must know what we believe about sex and why. Then, we must refuse to compromise our views under the misguided notion that, with compromise, we will somehow retain young people in the faith. Rather, we must affirm the goodness of sexuality, without vain moralism. Parents must teach their children about sex, while the church must care for singles (especially “Gay Christians”), and we must all fight the plague of pornography because it “dehumanizes, and it destroys the image of God in the face of the performers,” severing “the connection between sex and love” (p. 215).
Further, to combat the increasing influence of the world, we must recognize the dangers of technology. How many Christians are addicted to their I-phones? As Dreher admits, “It had become so second nature that my addiction was invisible to me, in part because nearly everybody else I know does the same thing” (p. 219). Yet, technology influences how we think and view the world. “Online technology . . . fragments and scatters our attention like nothing else” (p. 219). In a day when we must be sobered and think deeply in response to an increasingly antagonistic culture, addiction to technology may easily destroy our ability to be lights in a dark world. Thus, Dreher suggests fasts from technology: “If you don’t control your own attention, there are plenty of people eager to do it for you” (pp. 227-28). We must not allow our children unfettered access to smartphones: “Moms and dad who would never leave their kids unattended in a room full of pornographic DVDs think nothing of handing them smartphones. This is morally insane.” (p. 229). “If we fail to push back against the Internet as hard as it pushes against us, we cannot help but lose our footing” (p. 229).
Dreher makes many excellent points, well worth your consideration. However, since Dreher’s main thesis is that we are going to have to be the church, what exactly does Dreher mean by “church”? And what is the standard of being the church? This is where Dreher fails Protestants. For, Dreher relies heavily upon man-made traditions, not upon the infallible Word of God alone.
First, for example, Dreher defines “Traditional, historic Christianity” and “orthodox” theological traditions to include Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism (pp. 1, 4-5). Yet, Protestantism arose precisely as a “protest” against Roman Catholicism. The foundational doctrines of the Gospel in Protestantism are fundamentally at odds with those of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Dreher exhorts the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant to unify in battling against the world, but “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3).
Traditionally, in fact, Protestants and Catholics have mutually condemned one another as not true Christians. If this is true, each side would necessarily see the other as part of “the world,” not part of the church. Can one side, then, unite with “the world” in order to fight “the world”? The differences between these three groups are not slight but fundamentally, radically set them in opposition to one another. Around what, exactly, are we unifying against the world, if not the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Yet, these organizations believe fundamentally different truths about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can we be the church together, if our standard for being the church is not the same?
Second, Dreher uses as his model The Benedictine Order (applying it in various ways to the church). He does so with great effect, making insightful applications. Nonetheless, this foundational starting point again brings into question what the church really is. Is the church a group of men (excluding women) who commit to an extra-Biblical order of asceticism and live together in their own building complex? While Dreher points out many commendable practices of the Benedictine Order, worthy of our serious consideration (and personally convicting to me!), this starting point undermines the over-arching idea of what the church should really be.
Third, Dreher exhorts individual believers to start their own communities—preferrable with the support of local churches but without, if necessary: “if you wait around for the church, or someone else, to get something going, it may never happen” (pp. 139-40). Yet, if the community envisioned is “the church,” how can you “get something going” without “the church”? Likewise, Dreher exhorts: “Christian families have to start linking themselves decisively with other families” (p. 141). But isn’t that what the local church does, and what local churches do together? Likewise, when addressing how Christian students can survive in secular universities, Dreher points to “Christian associations on campus” (pp. 166-167). Why not point to local churches?
Dreher makes a number of insightful, even brilliant points. However, the broad way and vague manner of defining “the church” leads to some dissatisfying conclusions and confusion. Likewise, the appeal to sacred traditions as the standard for being the church leaves much to be desired. Why not simply start with the Scriptural doctrine of the church—what it is and should be as exposited from God’s Word—and apply those infallible truths to our current situation? First, as entrepreneur Leah Libresco said to Dreher, “But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” (142). Hence, the title, The Benedict Option. Second, both the Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy (of which Dreher is a member) essentially set church traditions on par with Scripture. Thus, Dreher exhorts Christians to “stand firm on the rock of sacred order, as revealed in our holy tradition” (p. 236). However, it is the Word of God alone that is backed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If Dreher really wants to unite the true church, facing imminent persecution in the midst of a crumbling society, such unity will not come by emulating the Benedictine Order (as helpful as it may be at points) but by rallying around the pure truth of God’s Word—not traditions, not man-made rules, but the pure, revealed will of God. The necessary unity will only be experienced in local church families united around the ministry of God’s Word, and such local churches working together for the Kingdom of God (e.g., Ephesians 4:11-16).
Dreher is arguing that the church must be the church if we are to endure the persecutions ahead. While some of us may disagree with Dreher regarding exactly what it means for the church to be the church, we must heartily agree with the principle! If God’s people would survive an onslaught of persecution, truly we must know what we believe, why we believe it, and be committed to suffer for what we believe, relying upon and caring for one another in the midst of hardships. Thus, reading The Benedict Option provides many profound insights about the state of the Western World and the church, and it provokes much-needed thought on how we must proceed to face our future world.
Ryan Speck is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Columbia, MO, and is Review Editor for Theology here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
THE BENEDICT OPTION: A STRATEGY FOR CHRISTIANS IN A POST-CHRISTIAN NATION, by Rod Dreher