I’d been grinding my own wheat flour for two years by the time I read Rod Dreher’s “Crunchy Cons” in 2006. A friend had given it to me because of my, shall we say, “Benedict Option” lifestyle. Winter red wheat berries are the best for bread baking, while the soft white ones produce a fine, velvety pastry flour—a tip for those interested in that route.
Life is a tale told through talk, taste, and touch. It is memory and destiny at once. A Christian might say it is death and resurrection, if you give your life you keep it. So before we get to Dreher’s new book, “The Benedict Option,” let me a little of my story.
Watching the President Clinton impeachment trial years ago changed my life. Sensing a call to do what I could for my country, I let go of my dreams of a quiet life in academia and went off to law school. I sought out mentoring by great constitutional law professors so I would eventually contribute to bringing the judiciary back to constitutional originalism.
By the time I was in my second year in law school, my life was unravelling. Law school is brutal. It is even more so for those who are married with families. Our culture can be a meat grinder, and battling it in the front lines of federal courts is even bloodier. I couldn’t have it all, and I couldn’t do it all. So I chose my family. This began a trajectory of increasing retreat and insularity that would lead to me (religiously) grinding my own wheat and policing my children’s speech for what I deemed to be affirmations of worldly popular culture.
“The Benedict Option” rightly tells the reader there is no salvation in politics, our culture has morally collapsed, and Christians have amalgamated their faith with American popular culture. Dreher believes American Christians’ only viable choice is what he has dubbed the “Benedict Option.” He uses the monastic Benedictine spirituality and way of life as a prescriptive template for all Christians.
This includes such measures as: stable local living in small intentional Christian communities—“the Christian village”; cutting back on pop culture consumption; orienting the family towards God; creating sacramentally vibrant worship; pulling the kids out of public school and educating them classically either through private school, home school, or co-op; practicing hospitality and Christian neighborliness; buying from other Christians even if it costs more; building Christian employment networks; refusing to compromise to satisfy the whims of the young; fighting pornography—the list goes on. In short: avoid vice, and take up virtue.
It sounds nice on the surface, but that’s not how it often works out in practice. This option, no matter what you call it, leads to gospel amnesia, not to a flourishing Christian culture.
My Family’s Experiment with a pre-Benedict Option
Soon after I left law school, I had our third baby, and we moved so my husband would not need to drive 70 miles through Los Angeles traffic to work. We changed denominations from a nominally conservative but doctrinally thin Protestantism to a more explicitly Reformed Calvinism. I did what is natural for a person who wakes up to the fact that she has neglected something precious—I overcorrected.
While learning about Reformed theology, we were introduced to the writings of pastors who were putting forth a very similar vision to the one Dreher offers in his book, though none called it the “Benedict Option” at the time. Sometimes it was referred to as “communities of like-minded Christians,” or as one community’s motto had it, “Simple, Separate, and Deliberate.”
Some had ties to neo-agrarianism. Many of the leaders we read had ties to the classical Christian education movement. Generally it went under different names depending on the pastor and community. Some even had created successful “ministries,” companies that sold products aimed primarily at home schooling parents and celebrating a life outside of twenty-first-century American culture.
We were in our early thirties. We wanted a faith for us and our children that could withstand the culture’s battering, intellectual and otherwise. Ultimately, our faith in such methods, and our journey in and out of this Benedict Option, exhausted our faith and estranged one of our children. I do not hold a blanket resistance against Christians building strong robust churches and communities, but this method is inherently flawed. It weakens rather than builds.
Benedict Option Communities Are Intrinsically Weak
We were particularly captivated by two of these Benedict-like communities, both deliberately founded in smallish cities in rural states with easy access to land for member families. We listened to recordings of their pastors and preeminent community members espousing the glories of life together in their churches and neighborhoods. We were hooked. We were convinced we had to go this route to survive degenerated American culture and raise godly children.
This was part of the impetus that drove us to flee Southern California, not to join one of these seemingly exemplary Benedict-like communities, but to at least be closer to other sympathizers, to join a community that affirmed the same creed and stood in solidarity with the brave agrarian vanguard of authentic Christianity. This was conveniently facilitated by the leaders of these exemplary communities having founded their own Protestant denominations, whose member churches could easily be identified online.
So for a time we found our solidarity and quasi-Benedictine community in this little corner of Christendom, but didn’t yet realize what a little corner it was. Church authority was held in high regard, but it gradually became clear that few could agree on what that meant. Everyone (inspired by genuine Christian motives, I concede) believed a countercultural lifestyle was of primary importance. This left matters of church governance to be of secondary importance at best, and through a series of events, the church and community fell apart.
Ours wasn’t the only Benedict-like community to suffer such a fate. Several of the exemplary communities we had looked up to unraveled to various degrees within the same decade. Verbal, ecclesiastical, and sometimes criminal charges of abuse, whisper campaigns, and blogosphere broadsides weakened the abilities of these communities not only to be lights to the world, but to serve their own members and families.
That leads me to my critique. Many of the families who come together to form these communities believe they are being obedient to God or purer in faith. But what begins as a good desire turns into a measuring rod. Families begin comparing themselves to one another and to those outside the community. Who can be more rigorous, and hence more faithful? Soon these judgments begin to build a wall that insulates those inside the community from the world outside. One sees a rise in authoritarian behavior, paranoia, and an insular mindset. It even distanced families in the community from kin who were not.
Those joining must soon be able to show they can check off the righteousness boxes. Sure, anyone can repent and believe the gospel, but can you live without both cable and Netflix? Can you homeschool your eight kids, including the 10-year-old special-needs son, without institutional involvement? Can you all show up twice a week to choir practice?
Can you derive an income for your household without taint from large immoral corporations or (gasp) government employment? Can you source at least half your family’s food from your own garden, pasture, and henhouse? Because the Smiths can. And the Joneses. And the Johnsons. And they are righteous. Not sure if you are. Welcome to the community.
This process diminishes the gospel, reducing it to a set of propositions one assents to, but what rises to primary importance is the list of distinctives. Distinctives are qualities the people of that community hold to be signs of faithfulness and Christian maturation. For some communities home schooling becomes one of the most important signs of a family’s obedience to God. In other communities it was agrarian living, still others it was classical education, or liturgical church worship. Every community had a slightly different ordering of these distinctives. But they all had them; they were the “Benedict rule” for that community.
If you had asked me back then to name the most important thing in life, I would have responded with: “Love the Lord your God with all your mind, heart, and strength.” Everyone would have answered the same way. No one would have said: “home schooling,” or “four-part harmony singing,” or anything else. But if you probed further and asked what does loving God mean, people would have responded with these distinctives. These were envisioned as necessary derivatives of “Love the Lord your God.”
To be sure, the God of the Bible does give us commands, and does tell us what loving him should look like. But these secondary and tertiary components begin quickly to undermine and overwhelm the primacy of what God actually says. This is my next point: it doesn’t take long for these communities to begin elevating non-salvific distinctives to a place of primary importance.
Dreher’s Cautions Are Not Strong Enough
In “The Benedict Option” Dreher tries to say things like “don’t make family an idol,” “reach across church boundaries to build relationships,” “don’t idolize the community,” and so on. But it reads as an “Oh, by the way, just look out for this.”
I found this perplexing for several reasons: One, if you write a book suggesting to people that the most viable Christian way forward is to unite in small communities and live faithful Christian lives, and if you’ve taken the time to see the ways it’s been done and failed (as I know he has on his blog), you should take the time to mount an honest counter argument against your proposal. You should present it to readers, then show how your ideas are different from those that have been tried and failed or been riddled with heinous sin.
It’s very curious that Dreher doesn’t mention the various Benedict Option communities that exist or have existed in the recent past and have been hampered by error, spiritual abuse, physical and sexual abuse, pettiness, and the like. It’s not that Dreher doesn’t know about these communities. He even exchanged several public blog post arguments with the pastor of an Idaho community who harbored a sexual child molester and helped get him married off, all while using his clerical platform to minimize the crimes and vilify the abuser’s victims. So why would Dreher not give space in a 244-page book to the empirical problems of actual intentional Christian communities?
Dreher gives only two mild examples of a Benedict option community not turning out well, but when read in the greater context of the book, you walk away thinking they were minimized, and that a general warning is enough to not fall into the ditch. The two counter points he gives are on page 129, and page 139 (in the galley copy). On page 129 he tells of a conversation with a high school senior he calls “an agonized young atheist.” She talks of her paranoid parents and gives this warning: “I wish you good luck with the Benedict Option,” she told me. “But please tell parents that if they want their kids to stay Christian, not to do what mine did. They smothered us and made us into rebels.”
To his credit Dreher does say on that same page, “It sometimes happens that mothers and fathers think they’re serving God by their austere discipline but in fact are driving their children away from Him.”
Right, but the fact is that most parents in the midst of such communities (I include myself in this criticism) do not realize they are being austere, because in those communities with the parent peer pressure toward producing “godly children” austere just looks like greater faithfulness. And which parent in those communities doesn’t want to be more faithful?
If you had told me back then that I was being austere (as my parents tried to warn me) with my children, I would have mocked your superficial, “Christian lite” ideas. You would have gotten an earfull, and three-quarters of Dreher’s 2017 arguments would have been spewing out of my mouth way back when the Benedict Option wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eyes. Sure enough, we lost a child to those ideas and way of life.
Quasi-Utopianism In The Benedict Option
America has a history of such utopian communities, more often than not separating themselves to be “Christian” in a distinct way from the surrounding culture. In a way, the Puritans who landed in New England were taking the “Benedict Option,” although they were anti-Catholic. One can still say that their goal was to build a community of faithful believers and raise their children in the faith.
But we know the tragic end of the Puritans, their faith and doctrine degenerating into Unitarian universalism fewer than four generations from landing at Plymouth Rock. History does not indicate that forming such family communities—even intentionally Christian ones—results in any kind of ark of preservation in a turbulent culture.
Dreher has written that he is not suggesting any utopian community or a retreat from the world. It’s true, he doesn’t outright call for it. This only heightens the dissonance in the mind of the reader, because his qualifications come amid the explicitly monastic titular metaphor and his repeated cherry-picked glowing descriptions of such communities, which are in practice quasi utopian and retreatist.
Dreher does give some warnings to his readers: “‘If you isolate yourself, you will become weird,’ Father Marc continued. ‘It is a tricky balance between allowing freedom and openness on the one hand, and maintaining a community identity on the other. The idea of community itself should not be allowed to become an idol.’”
Dreher states: “Communities that are wrapped too tight for fear of impurity will suffocate their members and strangle the joy out of life together. Ideology is the enemy of joyful community life, and the most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is possible.”
Those warnings are good, but what Dreher gives with one hand he takes away with the other. Later in the book he waxes poetic:
We live liturgically, telling our sacred Story in worship and song. We fast and we feast. We marry and give our children in marriage, and though in exile, we work for the peace of the city. We welcome our newborns and bury our dead. We read the Bible, and we tell our children about the saints. And we also tell them in the orchard and by the fireside about Odysseus, Achilles, and Aeneas, of Dante and Don Quixote, and Frodo and Gandalf, and all the tales that bear what it means to be men and women of the West.
We work, we pray, we confess our sins, we show mercy, we welcome the stranger, and we keep the commandments. When we suffer, especially for Christ’s sake, we give thanks, because that is what Christians do. Who knows what God, in turn, will do with our faithfulness?
How exactly is this not utopian? For a serious-minded Christian this sounds like heaven on earth. It certainly sounds wonderful to me.
The problem is not that Dreher recommends Christians live faithful, sacramental lives. There are inherent anti-cultural elements to such living, but those elements are not problematic in the ways these intentional communities of like-minded Christians are. I am all for, and our family indeed practices, faithful sacramental behaviors. We think through the decisions we make for our family, for the education of our children, and for our spiritual maturity. These are not the issue; but these are not the Benedict Option. If that is all Dreher means, then he should not have used a phrase that presupposes certain things.
The reader is left confused because Dreher hints this is all the “Benedict option” is, living a faithful Christian life. At one point he quotes a writer, Leah Libresco, saying: “People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!’” Libresco told me. ‘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.’”
One of the fair criticisms Dreher levels against modern Christians is that they are consumerists who fall for gimmicks and marketing. But it seems he is perfectly willing to use the method he decries to sell an idea to Christians. If that’s all this is, then “The Benedict Option” is a ruse.
I understand the longing for what Dreher describes in the Benedict Option. I still ache for it. There are ways to strengthen the family, to establish faithful churches, and to build a robust Christian culture. And it is good that we are having an honest discussion about them. But after our experience and that of others, I do not believe the Benedict option is it.