Writing for The Federalist last week, Luma Simms described the problems she sees in Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” citing a utopianism that encourages harmful insularity and accusing Dreher of hypocrisy in criticizing Christians “who fall for gimmicks and marketing” while he is, according to Simms, “perfectly willing to use the method he decries to sell an idea to Christians.”
The concern that Christians who embrace the Benedict Option are retreating into a cultish, anti-social lifestyle is perhaps the most common criticism of Dreher’s book. But Dreher has repeatedly denied that the book calls for Christians to withdraw from modern life to live in snobby little separatist communes.
Instead, Dreher encourages Christians to engage the culture, but to do so on their own terms, not on the culture’s. This is what I think a lot of people are missing about the Benedict Option. In focusing on the first part of the name, which evokes an image of monastic life, they are overlooking the importance of the second part of Dreher’s vision: “Option.” “Option” means “choice”—and it is the Christian’s commitment to choosing his path, rather than allowing it to be chosen for him by the world, that is at the heart of Dreher’s argument.
Christians Are Too Closely Conformed to This World
In an interview with Dreher on the radio program “Issues, Etc.,” host Rev. Todd Wilken observed that a significant aspect of “The Benedict Option” is Dreher “gently indicting the church for failing to act as such.” Dreher writes in the book of how both the Christian church and those who claim to belong to it have “capitulated” to the culture.
This capitulation is the main problem about which Dreher is concerned. Instead of choosing how we want to live and making decisions based on that choice, Christians are defaulting to what the culture offers, whether that be in the way we educate our children, the entertainment we pay for, the way we use technology, the way we do church, or even the way we talk. This is a problem, because the culture cares not a whit about Christians. In fact, the culture hates us.
In her Federalist article, Simms shares what she sees as her own experience with the Benedict Option before the name existed, saying that it ultimately “exhausted our faith and estranged one of our children.” But it seems to me a leap to conclude from just her experience that Dreher’s vision is “inherently flawed,” something that “weakens rather than builds.”
The Benedict Option is an abstraction. Everything about it is going to depend on the concrete ways in which people apply it, and those ways are going to vary from one person to the next. One family’s negative experience with something like the Benedict Option does not mean the underlying principles are all bad, just that it’s possible to not execute them well.
As Joy Pullmann observed, the Benedict Option is “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.”
Putting a Name To This Isn’t Gimmickry
For some, Dreher’s acknowledgment that he has merely given a name to something that is not new is a weakness, or as Simms describes it, a “gimmick.” For me, it is a revelation, a way of talking about what my husband and I have been doing for more than 20 years without realizing it. To be able to give our way of life a name so we can talk about it with others who are doing the same thing and to build one another up in our efforts is hardly a gimmick: it is a gift. (Dreher gave a similar gift when he wrote “Crunchy Cons.”)
I recently read “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J. D. Vance. It was a profoundly affecting experience, as my husband and I could relate to a staggering number of things in the book. It was also sad. Vance unflinchingly and honestly catalogs both the circumstances and personal behaviors that can make it difficult to impossible for people to chart a different path from the one in which they have been brought up. Yet the only way out is to wrest what control one can: to take responsibility for one’s actions and to make choices instead of letting others make those choices for you.
That is what the Benedict Option is all about: choosing. Do you send your children to public school because that’s what people do, or do you consider alternatives? Do you take the culture as it comes, or do you discriminate, saying no to music, books, movies, fashion, and other societal trends that conflict with your values? Do you let every latest piece of technology into your family’s hands simply because it’s available, or do you draw some boundaries?
Do you resign yourself to compromising your beliefs in performing your job because that’s just what one has to do these days, or do you refuse and accept the consequences? Do you make church a priority and seek out one that is serious about confessing Christ, or do you look for one that is comfortable and easy to fit it in around the edges? Do you actually read the Bible and pray as a family, or do you just call yourself a Christian and hope this and the occasional prayer born of urgency is good enough to get you into heaven some day?
When my husband and I got married 30 years ago, we didn’t consciously commit to a different kind of life from the one we had growing up. But now, looking back, I realize that is what we did. I don’t say this to take any credit for it. I am a person of faith, and I believe that for whatever reason, God enabled us to make some different choices. We often joke with our kids about what weirdos we are.
Yet it is a weirdness that we manage to live out not in remote and circumscribed isolation but as middle-class, homeschooling Lutherans in suburban Oklahoma. You don’t have to live in a commune, swear off cell phones and television, tell your daughter she can’t wear makeup, or refuse to interact with those who think differently, to practice the Benedict Option. You just have to live intentionally, putting Christ at the center of your life and making choices that keep him there while working to preserve and strengthen the values you hold dear in a culture that doesn’t get it.
If you do, you might just look back 30 years later and discover it made all the difference.