Hundreds gathered to discuss Rod Dreher’s new book, “The Benedict Option,” last week at the Union League Club in New York City. The public conversation was hosted by First Things, Plough, and The American Conservative. It seemed a bit ironic to be gathered in the cultural and commercial epicenter of the nation, discussing whether Christians ought to strategically retreat in the current political and cultural climate, as St. Benedict of Nursia did after the fall of Rome. But the room was buzzing; Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical Christians in New York City were eager to hear what Dreher had to say.
R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, introduced the event. Then Rod Dreher presented his remarks, making his case for his “Benedict Option,” a term he adopted from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book “After Virtue.” The Benedict Option, said Dreher, refers to “Christians who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.”
“Signs of our spiritual depletion are impossible to deny,” Dreher said, citing Pew data that shows one in three Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have put religion aside. He argued that faithful Christians should be alarmed by the state of spirituality in the West, and suggested that Christians should “construct arcs until we find dry land again”: building new forms of community that protect and shore up the Christian tradition and following the example of St. Benedict.
The History Behind ‘The Benedict Option’
When Benedict went to Rome to be educated as a young man, he was disgusted by the opulence and depravity of the city. He fled to the forest, lived as a hermit for several years, and then founded 12 monasteries governed by his rule of living, which encouraged prayer, work, hospitality, aestheticism, stability, and community.
Over time, the rule of St. Benedict transformed communities, said Dreher, as monks taught those living around the monasteries how to pray, grow things, and make things—all skills that were lost during Rome’s fall. Change began to happen “not because Benedict of Nursia set out to make Rome great again,” Dreher said, “but because he sought to figure out how to best serve the Lord in community during a terrible crisis.”
What Would A Modern Benedict Option Look Like?
Dreher was proactive in responding to those who have critiqued the Benedict Option as withdrawal from the world and thus inconsistent with the Great Commission. “Does the Benedict Option call Christians to head for the hills and build high walls to keep the impurity of the world at bay?” Dreher asked. “Not at all.”
Dreher said Christians today need to find a balance between fundamentalism (removing ourselves from the world) and accommodationism (assimilating with the world), and said doing so will require a strategic retreat for a time. “If the church is going to be the blessing the world that God means for it to be,” said Dreher, “then the church is going to have to spend more time away from the world, deepening its commitment to God, to Scripture, to Christian history and tradition, and to each other.”
Dreher did not go offer many specifics on how he believes the Benedict Option would play out, but said that living out the Benedict Option would change how Christians approach education, the workplace, prayer and worship, family and community, technology, politics, sex and sexuality. “The Benedict Option is, in one sense, a project of preserving the memory of what it means to be Christian,” he said.
Politics Aside, Christians Should Embrace These Practices
After Dreher’s initial remarks, Plough editor Peter Mommsen moderated a panel that included New York Times columnist Ross Douthat; Michael Wear, founder of Public Square Strategies and former director for faith outreach for the Obama Administration; Jacqueline Rivers, executive editor of the Seymour Institute on Black Church and Policy Studies; and Randall Gauger, bishop of the Bruderhof communities in the United States.
Douthat responded first: “Rod is right, even if he’s wrong,” he said. Douthat believes that Dreher’s analysis of current events is overly pessimistic and suggested that we might be seeing an exodus of “cultural Christians” from the church, rather than its total collapse. He concluded, however, that “in certain ways it doesn’t matter that much” whether Dreher’s analysis of the situation is right or wrong, as the practices he is advocating are useful and likely necessary.
“Building resilient communities may not be the answer, but it’s an incredibly important answer to some of the challenges of our time,” said Douthat. “Everyone should take one step in a more monastic direction.”
Do We Live In A Society Where Secularism Has Won?
Wear responded next. “One of the gifts of Rod’s book is its utter confidence that it is possible to follow Jesus today,” said Wear, “and that we can order our lives to make it so.” Wear did critique the book, however, for playing into people’s fears and encouraging “Christians to seek Christian community for cultural security.” Wear said the book “too frequently … uses cultural circumstances themselves as the motivator for more intentional living,” rather than love of God and neighbor.
Do we live in a society where secularism has won? Wear is not sure. “It is today, at the very moment the questions are being asked—What is truth? What is justice? What can I hope for? What am I made for?—that Christians can enter the public square with joyful confidence for the flourishing of their neighbors and come alongside them and help them seek the answers we know are available to them,” he said.
He concluded that Christians should pursue the Benedict Option not as a way of cultural preservation, but as God leads them. “There is nothing wrong with American Christianity that would not be fixed by American Christians becoming more deeply transformed into the image of the Christ whose name we claim as our own. Insofar as this is the Benedict Option, it is one I fully endorse.”
Is The Benedict Option the Right Level of Tension?
Rivers’s primary critique was that the book conflated Western culture with Christianity. She referenced Acts 2:42-47, which outlines the fellowship of believers in the early church, the “original Benedict Option.”
“Christianity will survive the fall of the West,” Rivers said, adding that she thought the book was not written to a broad enough audience (i.e., primarily toward the white church). She advocated adopting the “original Benedict Option,” as practiced by early Christians.
Lastly, Randall Gauger offered his thoughts. He said building a communal church could help Christians to engage more meaningfully, pointing to his own experience as part of Bruderhof, a century-old Anabaptist tradition in which participants live in an intentional community and share everything.
“Only in a communal church can the old and the very young, hurting military veterans, disabled, mentally ill, ex-addicts, ex-felons, or simply annoying people … find a place where they can be healed and accepted and once more contribute to common life.” Gauger’s main critique of “The Benedict Option” was that Dreher is not taking his rule seriously enough. “It won’t be enough to apply a few aspects of the rule of St. Benedict that happen to dovetail nicely into our middle-class American lifestyle.”
After Dreher responded to each of the panelists, they all had the opportunity to ask a pointed question.
“The Benedict Option is a general concept,” Dreher said. “It’s not a 20-point program. It’s an orientation Christians have toward our history and toward our future … [The Benedict Option] is about strategic withdrawal from the world for the sake of serving the world as authentic Christians.”
You can watch the entire discussion here.