Since my political life has been largely among libertarian and neocon types, I’ve been reading Rod Dreher’s blog like it’s samizdat for several years now. It has been both a surprise and comfort to finally get my pre-ordered copy of his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, which debuts this weekend at No. 7 on The New York Times’ bestseller list.
I did not expect the book to be popular. Perhaps it is only being bought by all the folks it threatens, who are essentially all the dominant cultural forces of American life, but that seems unrealistic. At least a good number of those purchasers have to be listening to Dreher’s message. That is one of its surprises.
Another is the book’s moderate tone. For a would-be jeremiad that torches contemporary American culture and religion, and warns that we’re headed for a cultural and religious “dark age,” it’s remarkably positive and even. For a good old-fashioned, flaming-brimstone jeremiad you will have to read Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, which I also recommend. But The Benedict Option is the sunniest prediction of doom I have ever read (except the biblical book of Revelations, which, let’s be real, is far more frightening).
Dreher Assumes We Agree America’s Problems Are Huge
It should be said upfront that Dreher’s book is largely preaching to a choir of religious conservatives that already share his concerns. For me, that detracted from his persuasive power. As an avid Dreher fan, I kept expecting to be pounded with the weight of the data showing that the American civilization has likely passed the point of no return. This is, of course, a linchpin of his argument. Drastic times eliminate the appeal of half measures.
Dreher does touch on relevant psychological, religious, and social data, but it’s the accumulated evidence on his blog over the years that has helped convinced me of this crucial part of his thesis more than anything. (Also, when someone such as Charles Murray thinks, with unrelenting data trends and political realities to back himself up, the American experiment is probably over, well, it’s probably over.)
Additionally, the fact family formation is cratering, and it remains an issue that almost nobody with a high profile seems willing to talk about let alone address, has convinced me, yes, America is likely over. Further, since religious belief is linked with family formation and strong social ties that a socialism-comparable welfare state like ours devastates, you can stick a fork in the notion that America remains a “Christian nation.”
If you don’t think there is a serious, and most likely irreversible, decay in American life, you’ve simply not been paying attention. Since Dreher’s audience seems to be partly people who are not paying close attention, and his goal is to wake them up, I wonder why he didn’t do more to provide data making his case, as it’s readily available and overwhelming. Perhaps he felt that since he’s not a social scientist he would focus on these problems from a more journalistic perspective. That is indeed how the book reads, and from whence it derives its brightness.
I tend to be, in Benedict Option terms, too Enlightenment-minded, overly dependent on data before I believe a conclusion. It’s possible the book’s conversational quality may be more persuasive to a broader audience. It does make the book very readable. But I wonder if this reduces readers’ motivation to act on Dreher’s recommended lifestyle changes, which for serious Christians, are difficult to entertain, and involve completely reorienting away from mainstream consumerist, narcissistic, secular American culture.
Like God, This Dude Is Not Messing Around
Dreher’s basic contention, if the book can be said to have one, is that Americans who self-identify as Christians mostly aren’t. They reject almost all of the major tenets of Christian orthodoxy, as defined rather clearly in the Bible and preserved and extended through centuries of church tradition.
Just consider a mere three of the Ten Commandments: Murdering the unborn, sick, and elderly is not only legal, but sponsored by religious Americans’ tax dollars that the “party of life” can’t seem to cut off despite unilateral control of all federal branches and 32 statehouses; various forms of adultery (sexual activity is biblically sanctioned exclusively for two married, opposite-sex people, which means pornography is also out) are Supreme Court-established “rights”; and Americans are subject to government persecution for refusing to have other gods—what else would one call forced participation in blatantly anti-Christian religious ceremonies?
In short, we are not a “Christian nation,” and could even be fairly described as an anti-Christian nation, thanks in part to people who call themselves Christians. (Didn’t Jesus talk about these people somewhere?) It’s not just the social issues, either. Sociologist Christian Smith, whom Dreher quotes, points out that almost no Americans, whether self-identified Christians or not, believe in the basics of the Christian creeds. The Bible’s God is not that of Americans. Oprah’s god is.
Dreher’s solution to this—as much as everyone who isn’t Jesus can “solve” the problem of sin from which this all stems—is also stunningly simple. It’s summed up by a New Yorker named Leah Libresco Sargeant on page 142: “[P]eople 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.”
The Call to Discipleship
To put it into biblical terms, the proper function of the church is precisely what Christ told us it was directly before his ascension: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” I bolded the verbs, obviously, to highlight what the Christian church should be doing, but churches in contemporary America have largely sidelined.
Let me give a personal example. Every religious reader will have more. In my town there is a well-endowed religious foundation that ostensibly operates to support its denomination’s local churches. At a recent meeting for potential grantees they showcased a recent “successful” funding project as a model for would-be grant recipients. It was essentially a petting zoo for disabled people.
Now, I love animals, and Jesus loves disabled people. But what part of such activity involves discipleship, teaching, or baptizing? In charity, I’ve racked my brain to think of anything remotely related to a church’s core mission that such activities further. But there is none. In a country in which huge numbers of churched children leave their faith after high-school graduation and almost all of them know almost literally nothing about Christianity’s core teachings, is there any excuse for funding and activity priorities like this? I think not.
Dreher makes similar points writ large about the American church’s overemphasis on politics, which has consumed huge amounts of donations and netted us precisely a world in which both major parties despise our constitutional liberties to freely exercise our religion. In short, not only have we gotten nothing, we’re worse off.
Our situation is even worse than that of the unfaithful servant in Christ’s parable who put his master’s talents in the ground because he was afraid to use them. At least he preserved his master’s one talent. The American church has a negative balance to show for its political engagement with the “moral majority” and the “Christian right” over the past 50 years or so. We have put our trust in princes, and they have rightly repaid us with contempt.
This is what comes of interpreting the Great Commission as a call to “do something” and “create faith movements” or whatever, rather than disciple. Too many in the American church seem to be disciples of Mrs. Jellyby instead of Jesus. Discipleship is intimate, long-term, detailed, daily, and decidedly difficult. It starts with fulfilling our responsibilities to our children, which is not done with a once- or twice-weekly church drive-by, but, yes, orienting our entire family life around our faith, as Dreher preaches. And America’s Christian parents, and America’s pastors, have abandoned their own children. There is no other way to interpret the fact that today’s young are the least likely to have faith than any generation in recorded history.
Crosses Aren’t Meant to Be Comfortable
Dreher’s prescriptions, therefore, may seem extreme to someone unused to sacrificing comfort to take up her cross and follow Christ. But they are the least of what church leaders and laity ought to consider. Perhaps the biggest eyebrow-raiser is this admonition: “Because public education in America is neither rightly ordered, nor religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system.”
Given the research he cites about the crucial importance of a child’s peer group for maintaining religious belief, and the saturation of anti-Christian philosophies all the way down to the roots of dominant teaching methods even Christian teachers use (a local Christian school uses Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights curriculum, for example!), this is more persuasive to me as someone who not only works in education policy but has been teaching and designing classical education curricula for more than a decade. Almost every piece of the structure of American family life creates barriers to this.
Parents pay not only taxes but pretty hefty mortgage premiums for public schools. This impoverishes their ability to choose an independent education. Lots of people are not motivated enough to move to a lower-cost home, buy older cars, delay retirement, and cut vacations to afford private schooling. The highly regulated American economy is locked into models of time use and compensation that complicate the ability of families to break out of the factory-style schooling structure (everybody show up at the same time that corresponds to parent work start and end times in the same building for the same lesson and get measured, like widgets, by somewhat meaningless data points, etc.). Then there’s the cultural preferences for activities that exact hefty opportunity costs that conflict with a good school’s mission, such as sports and SAT prep.
The regulatory barriers to opening a school are huge, not only curricular (accreditation, teacher certification mandates—both proven useless to academic excellence yet still mandatory, time-consuming, and expensive) but also structural (building codes, IRS regulations, almost mandatory and costly applications for code waivers). Counterculture by nature is extremely challenging, and really does require a total life transformation. Small is the gate, and narrow is the road.
Here There Be Dragons
Dreher’s other recommendations aren’t any more comfortable for the upwardly mobile invested in the consumerist version of the American Dream, for whom money and its social standing holds more allure than serious sacrifice for a greater good. He suggests Christians should voluntarily withdraw from potentially lucrative professions, such as biomedical research and law, given the shockingly anti-Christian trends in those industries—splicing human and pig genes, anyone? He’s a big proponent of tech Sabbaths and limits of many varieties. He says Christians should spend less time in grassroots and other kinds of direct politicking and focus instead on rebuilding their families and local communities.
This all may sound dreary to the small-souled, but to the great-souled or those who wish to be, it has the air of discipleship, a commitment that costs something. Dreher is essentially calling for Christians to heed Saint Paul’s call to “not be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
For too long we have conflated the American Dream with Christianity. The two are not synonymous, and the current culture war campaigns we see are making that increasingly obvious to those who choose not to delude themselves. In a true Christian economy, success is measured by faith, not riches or prestige. This is why martyrdom is so noble. We are not all called to full martyrdom, but every Christian is called to increasing self-denial.
It actually makes me think of Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit, who very, very adamantly does NOT want to go on an adventure. He wants to maintain his respectable, comfortable, middle-class, hobbit life. Indeed, even in the middle of the adventure he sits on his mountain fearfully awaiting the dragon’s attack and reflects at how he wishes he were not where he was.
Yet there he was, like it or not, for that is how life is. He could either lie down and die the death of a coward, or stand up on his burned little hobbit feet and fulfill his duties. He could throw down that cross or take it up.
In The Benedict Option, Dreher simply reminds us that we are all on the side of a dragon-infested mountain. If our hairs aren’t personally singed yet, that is fool’s comfort, and it is no mark of good character to hide from the truth and insist that perhaps the dragon will not get us all, or we can hide.
So, in our own little pathetic hobbit ways, we must shoulder our packs and rusty little swords, and make a stab for it, and show our kids and communities how Christians live the truly good life in a sin-infested world that is not our home, running with all we’ve got so that we may receive the prize, so that at the end of our labors we may hear: “Well done, thou good and faithful servants. Enter thou into the joy of your Lord.”