Two Intertwined Narratives
Rod Dreher begins his book The Benedict Option by observing that the “culture war” is over and that the conservatives have lost it. If the war is indeed over, many of the warriors don’t seem to have noticed. Whether or not the culture war has been lost, its very existence has been detrimental to American Catholicism. The Benedict Option could play an important role in reorienting American Catholicism away from the culture wars and refocusing it on a radical commitment to the Faith in daily life.
Unfortunately, the Benedict Option is frequently seen instead as a successor strategy to the culture war, a sort of “run away to live and fight another day.” This framing is implicit in certain aspects of Dreher’s writing, and in the work of some other commentators within the larger Benedict Option community.
For instance, on page 12 of The Benedict Option, after detailing a long string of culture war defeats, Dreher writes:
“Nobody but the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right believes that this cultural revolution can be turned back. . . . Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbanks and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.”
While Dreher’s blog still mentions the Benedict Option, it has recently focused on documenting how much “liberals” hate “conservatives” in the United States. Here is a typical quote from a blog post that was published on June 6th, 2020:
“After all, though The Benedict Option sold pretty well, there are still many American Christians of more or less traditional beliefs who refuse to accept that the social order that has a place for them has come to an end, and that we have entered a time of post-Christian (and anti-Christian) chaos — a time that calls for a disciplined, hunkering-down strategy akin to the early Benedictines. Nobody wants to believe the worst, no matter what the evidence. . . . A Christian professor friend told me a couple of years ago that The Benedict Option’s moment hasn’t yet come, because there are millions of conservative Christians who don’t understand, as conservative Christians in academia and media do understand, how hated Christians to the right of the Episcopal Church are. “If Trump loses, the scales will be ripped from their eyes,” he said. Maybe so. But I’ve been writing a book that makes an even more extreme claim: that conservative Christians (and all other conservatives, though the book is directed at believers) will actually be persecuted, and forced to profess things they don’t believe, or lose their jobs, their social status, and their friends.”
Paralleling this narrative of the Benedict Option as Culture War hideout is a more inspiring narrative: the Benedict Option as Christianity lived out to the full. One of my favorite quotes from The Benedict Option is on page 142, from Leah Libresco Sargeant:
“‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!’ . . . It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be …”
Similarly, on page 237, Dreher quotes Pastor Greg Thompson as saying :
“The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine,” he said. “It can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.”
Breaking Free of the Culture Wars
We should promote the Benedict Option as a way of living the Christian life more fully, not as a culture war strategy. A culture war framing might help to sell the idea to despondent conservatives, but such a framing will disastrously warp the message in many different ways.
If the Benedict Option is framed as a “strategic retreat”, disagreement with the culture warrior becomes merely a matter of strategy. Culture warriors tend to dismiss the Benedict Option as a timid response and hold out hope of ultimate success on their own terms.
More importantly, such a framing will perpetuate a polarized outlook that sees the world as divided between heroic “conservatives” and evil “liberals”. This mentality creates an ugly, cartoon-like understanding of history and the Faith. The sweeping arc of salvation history does not have a sordid scuffle between American political factions as its endpoint!
Rod Dreher drew his inspiration for The Benedict Option from the last chapter of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. Referring to the collapse of the Roman Empire, Macintyre writes: “A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.”
In other words, the critical thing wasn’t the realization that the Roman Empire was in terminal decline. That should have been fairly obvious to any impartial observer. What was crucial was to break free of the mental constraints imposed by the Empire, and so gain a wider vision that could find new paths for the future. The fall of the Empire wasn’t entirely tragic. It was actually a potential opportunity for those with the eyes to see it. At the time, it would have been hard to imagine a resurgence of Christian society after the fall of the Empire; the Romans, Christian or not, had come to identify the Roman Empire with the World itself, and saw those outside as barbarians. Even as Rome declined, however, missionaries were converting pagan tribes to Christianity, and new modes of Christian life—including that of the Benedictine monasteries—were developing. From these seeds, the Christian society of the High Middle Ages would later develop.
Today, we need a similar reset in our vision. The interwebs are awash with prophets of doom chronicling the decline of the “American Empire”. What is really needed is a realization that the “American Empire” is fatally flawed and, more importantly, always was flawed. The Benedict Option can help create this realization, but only if we can break out of the worldview imposed by the culture war. The Benedict Option, seen as an attempt to radically live out the Gospel in community, would have been just as valuable in the 1950s as in the 2020s. The American Dream was always incompatible with the Gospel. Christ wasn’t particularly “conservative”; he would have shocked Edmund Burke. (Nor, for that matter, was he a “liberal”.) We shouldn’t pine for the days when American society made it easy to live the Gospel; it never did, and the only thing that has changed is the kinds of difficulties that it puts in our way.
A focus on current social persecution as a reason for starting a community will also give such communities an unhealthy, resentful mentality. Conservatives rightly point out that a victimhood mentality is mentally and spiritually sapping. They often fail, however, to observe this mentality in themselves. Such a mindset will blight anything good in the Benedict Option.
If the Benedict Option has any relation at all to the fall of the American “empire”, or to secular persecution of Christians, it is that this collapse and persecution have made it easier to see the perennial, underlying truths of the Faith. Christianity demands sacrifice, “thick” community, and the virtues exemplified by the saints. We shouldn’t see events such as Roe v. Wade and Obergefell as marking the disintegration of a healthy society, but rather as “apocalyptic” moments which pulled back the mask and revealed our culture and society to be fundamentally flawed—and to be fundamentally corrupting of our Christian identity.
Disillusioned by the obvious corruption and decay, stripped of our enervating reliance on wealth and power and social approval, Christians can drop their allegiance to the “empire” and get back to their real calling of following Christ as a community.
In what ways would a community focused on the Gospel differ from one that is merely reacting to the decay of the surrounding culture? In some ways, the results would be similar. Gospel-focused Benedict Option communities could find structure and inspiration through a study of the Benedictine rule, just as Rod Dreher suggests. They would strive to live out the values of prayer, asceticism, stability, community, prayer, and work, just as monks and other Christian figures have done for millennia. They would do well to become more intentional about educating their children and more cautious about their use of technology, as recommended in The Benedict Option.
On the other hand, I think communities which consciously reject the culture wars would be far more open to the message of Pope Francis, and would heed his call to go to the peripheries. Such communities would strive to show the love of Christ to the marginalized. In doing so, they could help to Christianize movements that are striving for social justice in today’s world. They would be more likely to embrace voluntary poverty in solidarity with the poor. Above all, their focus would be on a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, rather than on the problems in the surrounding world.
This personal relationship with Christ and this focus on the Gospel would give them a certain confidence that proponents of the Benedict Option often lack. Christians should see their message as a fundamentally attractive one, not as something which is doomed to lose when pitted against the world. In the Gospel, we see that Christian community is oriented toward mission; community and mission are not opposites but rather related as cause and effect. We don’t need to carefully shield our faith from the stormy winds of life; rather, our faith is a flaming torch that can set the whole world on fire. A Faith that enabled a group of poor fishermen to convert a decadent, hostile empire is a Faith that can enable our communities to transform the modern world.
Image: Mont-Saint-Michel Drone Photo 2018. By Ryan R Zhao – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77096299