Understanding the Benedict Option
We've been discussing the book, The Benedict Option, in our monthly Theology Forum. Some of our folks love it and some hate it. I wanted to give some my own thoughts regarding its background that might make it easier to at least understand. I'm not defending him, just trying to make the book and his points more lucid. At our Forum, we prefer to take on subjects that are provocative (and I can never use the word “provocative” without thinking of Blades of Glory), this book has certainly been that!
So, here goes....
1. One reason the BO is controversial is because Dreher (the author) offers an alternative to other cultural strategies we’ve seen before. That is straight forward enough and in time we will hopefully understand his alternative and accept it or reject it on its own merits. Moving on…
2. Another reason that the BO is controversial or confusing is that Dreher is sometimes sloppy. He paints with a fun, but wildly broad brush in chapter two. Later in the book, Dreher will say one thing in one paragraph and the opposite in the next, or do a bad job distinguishing between the work of the church proper and the work of distinct Christians. It’s up to the reader not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
3. The BO is also controversial or confusing because, in chapter two, he doesn’t give a clear definition of right and wrong. He seems wistfully nostalgic about the Dark Ages… You know, the good ole days when the Black Death could kill 100 million people in Europe! I don’t think he means that, but because he isn’t explicit about it he leaves that door open. Dreher is just explaining where we are in the large sweep of culture and whether that is right or wrong it doesn’t really matter. In the rest of the book, Dreher will attempt to show us what to expect from a society that is completely sold out to Secular Humanism.
4. On this last point, it may be helpful to know that Dreher is Eastern Orthodox, and Eastern Orthodox Christians are VERY proud of the fact that they didn’t have a Scholastic Period. Orthodox theologians talk about it all the time! The Scholastic Period in theology was the days of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas taught that you could do theology without a Bible, all you needed was natural laws and philosophies. Aquinas was Catholic and the Orthodox have never (ever!) let anyone forget that. Ever since Aquinas, the Orthodox take solace in what they don’t know about God, while the Catholics (and Protestants) take solace in what we do know about him. That always makes the Orthodox seem wistful for less knowledgeable days. That is true across all their writings and Dreher is just being true to those roots. That may bother you, but because he’s Orthodox Dreher may have some perspective on things that we are missing in our own theology or experience. This “different tradition” will be on full display in chapter 3, which I loved.
5. Lastly, I think the BO is confusing because Dreher is speaking of a time that doesn’t quite exist. And this is the most important point. Dreher’s point in chapter two was that we have been (intellectually) drifting from God for the last seven centuries. (Were those more Christian days before? Don’t worry about that. He is just speaking of intellectual history, not spiritual history.) Dreher is saying that the christian tendencies of Western Civilization are a shell that is getting thinner and thinner from one generation to the next. We are like a house that is held together by the paint! At some point it will crash and, according to Dreher, we will enter an entirely new Dark Age. Unlike the last Dark Ages, this coming Dark Age will target the church instead of support it. Notice, these are TWO DIFFERENT POINTS! This is where Dreher is most confusing, at least to me. So let’s break those two points apart.
5a. The coming Age will be DARK. I think this is an unhelpful point that Dreher will consistently make. He may be right, but it doesn’t further his real point (which is 5b). He holds out hope that Christians will be some kind of gate keeper of decent society when humanists start swinging from trees and dressing in animal skin. We may indeed preserve society, but we also might not. Dreher’s editor should have caught this and thrown it out because it keeps tripping him up. He will talk about preserving society in one paragraph and then turning away from it the next. So just let him get those wiggles out and move to the better point.
5b. The Age will be ANTI-CHRISTIAN. Dreher argues that our society is already radically un-Christian in its beliefs. It is also radically un-Christian in what it champions (marriage laws, etc). But Dreher says there is a final step, one that is yet to come. There will come an age where Christians will be the target of society instead of just passive onlookers. And this is what he is trying to prepare us for. Think, for a moment, what will it be like if churches lose their tax exempt status? People will give less and church budgets will shrink dramatically. What do you think would happen to the membership of the five biggest churches in Joplin if you couldn’t get certain jobs as Christians? Churches would lose people at staggering rates! Would you still come to CTK? Would I still preach?
Right now it doesn’t cost much to be a Christian because the church has been hitching a ride on Western Civilization. In fact, for centuries, being a Christian has been a way to keep from rocking the boat. When that stops, and Dreher thinks it will, the church will go through a cataclysmic change. In the Benedict Option, Dreher is painting a picture of the church he believes will emerge from the rubble. It won’t have the luxury of being classically “missional” because the church and its people will be ostracized. Tim Keller tells Christians to become Harvard professors, meanwhile Dreher is preparing us for the time when we can’t! In Dreher's dystopia, church members will have to spend their time/energy/money caring for people who have borne the brunt of being shut out of society — much like in Acts 2, 4, 6 and 1Timothy 5.
As an Orthodox Christian, Dreher is well positioned for this discussion. The Russian Orthodox Church flourished under Communism, amidst severe persecution. They did so by strengthening from within, embracing that they were isolated and snubbed. Meanwhile in the West, Protestants were telling everyone to vote Republican and Cathlolics were telling everyone to quit using condoms. See the difference? We have lived in a luxury we might not have noticed.
Dreher is writing this book before it is a complete reality, and that is why I think it is confusing. He is not trying to turn the tide or go back to a bygone era, I don’t think that’s possible. Is Dreher right to strategize about this? Is Dreher’s strategy even right? I don’t know, actually, but I do think the less we drink the Kool-Aid of our Age the better off we will be in just a couple generations. And I think that is Dreher’s point. He makes his point sloppily sometimes, but we are smart to be talking about this.
If I can close with the final paragraph of Nietzsche’s Parable of the Madman, partly because it is awesome and partly because it is appropriate. Dreher reminds me of the Madman that cries “God is Dead” and no one knows what to do with him…
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come to early," he said then; "my time is not yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves."
I hope this helps.