The Roman Empire may have fallen in the 400’s, but it took a generation of cultural anarchy for the moral implications of that collapse to manifest themselves. By the early 500’s, the “Christian” way of living in Rome had gone the way of Caesars and Senates, and the few believer’s who remained were left adrift.
Rome had been a bastion of Christian civilization, but by 500 AD things were so bad that a Christian’s only hope was to hole up in the hills—or so the story goes. The story, by the way, is that of Benedict, a Catholic who took flight from Rome. He believed that the best way to save the West was to leave it; that the best way to fulfill the Great Commission was not by going into the world, but by going away from it, so that there would yet be a Christian light on the hill.
What followed is the history of the monastery. Christianity (and even Judaism before it) had always had a monastic element to it, and Benedict resurrected the hope that there could a kingdom culture in the midst of a pagan world. He founded not only a monastery, but a series of schools with their own code of conduct for a counter-cultural way of life.
The idea was that by leaving the “world” the monastery could capture the hopefulness of the Christian life. While marriage decayed, morality plummeted, and wars raged, those in Europe could still see the literal city on a hill, and know that beyond those walls were a different way of life; a way that involved the sacraments and the church, religious restraint with a Christian work-ethic. The monks in turn receive credit for guarding the Scriptures and maintaining the kind of order that God meant for the world. It’s as if the Christian ethic was frozen and stored in the freezer, ready to be thawed when the world would come looking—in this case, the Renaissance.
This is the story Rod Dreher tells in The Benedict Option. He paints a picture of hopefulness arising from the ashes of society, and that hope is found in separation and distinctness. There is much to commend about The Benedict Option, and there are many reviews of this book already written. In fact, reading Ben Opt reviews accidentally became a hobby of mine recently—I cant’ get enough of them. But many of them have a glaring weakness: they don’t seem to address what I see as the major objections to Dreher’s thesis. Most of the negative reviews are written along the lines of “it’s not really that bad…after all Trump won!” or “Its not really that bad, the whole LGBT thing is kind of overblown anyway…”
But those are not my concerns with The Benedict Option. I say, “it is really as bad as he says,” and yet for a Christian The Benedict Option is no option at all. Here are three reasons why: It necessitates a revisionist view of history (which I’ll call a “racial” problem), lacks the gospel (or, the “Catholic problem”), and sacrifices religious freedom (a “Baptist” problem).
Before I get to those, let me summarize Dreher’s book. His main point: in the same way a cultural apocalypse came after the fall of Rome, a new cultural low-point has arrived in the West (particularly the United States). And just as the solution in the 500’s was the monastery, so a new monastic movement is needed today. Christians—by which Dreher means Catholics, Orthodox, and Evangelicals who are opposed to gay marriage, abortion, and the like (8, 18)—should preserve a culture of marriage and life by creating their own social structure. They should stop fighting cultural change, and instead just leave it (12—you don’t fight a flood, you flee it).
Because we are no longer welcome in the world, we should welcome each other. Gone are the days where a Christian can be effective in politics, law, medicine, or the public school. I mean, we can’t even get a jobs as bakers or County Clerks any more. So, Dreher advocates, its time to pack up and move out.
If you can, you should go to an “intentional community” based on the Christian concept of family and religion, with its own rules to promote godly living. If you can’t leave, then you should create your own where you are. Instead of buy American, try “buy Christian.” Get out of public schools, and teach each other’s kids (preferably with Classic Education). Worship together, live together, love together, and keep the remnant alive for the next 1,000 years.
To be clear—Dreher is right about the decline of society. While every generation since the Didache thinks the next generation will ruin the world, it remains true that there are sizable cultural shifts in the United States that in many ways represent a decay in cultural value similar to what happened to Rome. Fine. But 1 +2 does not equal 5.
Here are my objections to the The Benedict Option:
Revisionist History—A Racial Problem
Dreher’s thesis hinges on a concept of Christian morality that was present in western civilization that is now lost. To be fair, he has a point. Previous generations in the United States did aspire to have a biblical family with two parents, no divorce, and sexual purity. If kids were sexually promiscuous, at least they’d lie about it. We had a concept of truth, right and wrong, and morality. That is gone.
America is going through a wake-up call, where a generation of older Christians is suddenly realizing that there is no “moral-majority,” and there certainly is no “silent-majority” that secretly is ok with Christian ethics. That slab of society simply doesn’t exist, and this is hard for many to bear.
But still…Dreher doesn’t seem to grant that previous generations were every bit as corrupt and decayed as ours. As Russell Moore points out, “today we don’t have more atheists than before; just more honest ones.” By feeding this notion of an American bygone gospel era, Dreher ends up creating a history that doesn’t exist. There never was an era where real believers were compatible with the world.
While the traits associated with godliness were generally accepted as positives in previous generations, there was limited (if any) concept of meaningful church membership, meaningful missions sacrifice, meaningful confrontation of materialism and the like. The revivals of yesteryear occurred, to be sure; but remember that they occurred precisely because they were needed.
The absent counter-factual in The Benedict Option is slavery, followed by segregation. It is amazing that in a book on the tailspin of American culture, Dreher didn’t give at least a chapter to institutional racism. How can we argue that culture is in a decline and not deal honestly with the fact that the Bible-belt enslaved half its population, then followed that with segregation? Monks left the monasteries just in time to staff the slave-trading forts, and the least Dreher could have done is mentioned it.
There is an obvious connection to our society’s embrace of same-sex “marriage” and slavery. Slavery led to a legal fight to define inherent freedoms, which in turn led to segregation and a legal battle to define equality apart from the image of God. If “equality” is the bullet that finally killed legalized segregation, we can’t be surprised when the culture reloads to shoot marriage as well.
The fall of our culture didn’t start with gay marriage, the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, or even those darned hippies. The string that pulled the garment apart runs through segregation, slavery, and right to systemic racism produced by a supposed “Christian culture.” Is SSM bad? Yes. As bad as slavery? Yeah Right.
Imagine being an African-American and reading a book that claims the downfall of Western Civilization is indicated by Justice Kennedy’s incoherent ruling on gay marriage—as if that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so now everyone head to the hills! Christians could be comfortable in society through slavery and segregation, but Obegerfell is just too much?
An absence of the gospel—a Catholic Problem
At no point in The Benedict Option does Dreher give any hints that he actually understands the saving power of the gospel. In his view it seems that salvation comes through sacraments and our effort. Holy living includes “obedience, stability, and conversion of life, which means dedicating oneself to the lifelong work of deepening repentance” (50-51). Dreher says that “right belief is essential, but holding the correct doctrines in your mind does you little good if your heart—the seat of the will—remains unconverted” (52). That sounds ok, until you see what he means by conversion: “That requires putting those right beliefs into action through right practice, which over time achieves the goal Paul set for Timothy when he commanded him to ‘discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness’ [1 Tim 4:7]” (52-53). Yea gads.
Dreher esteems Latin chants (57), and defines prayer as contemplation (58). The monks taught that “the highest state of the Christian life [is] to free oneself from the cares of the flesh to adore and praise God and to reflect on his truth.” Aka, modern Gnosticism.
There are good examples of Christian ethics in The Benedict Option. I enjoyed the section on work, for example. But there are comically poor sections, such as when he argues that celebate monks can teach us how to have a right sexual ethic. But underneath it all is Dreher advocating that a way of life can bring stability to the world; this is simply not the message of the New Testament. The NT describes an unstable world where hostility against Christ grows, and our response is to come at it with the gospel—the good news of what Jesus has done on the cross, making the full atonement for our sins.
Once you allow a little Catholic shenanigans—just a pinch of your own work to “activate” the gospel message in you—then there is no place to stop and it ceases to be good news. If our work and effort enable our salvation, then I suppose a monastery is the natural conclusion. But if you believe the gospel has the power to save, then you better put the Great back in the Great Commission.
Lest you think I’m nitpicking here, Dreher quotes a Pope, Bishop, or Catholic leader on what seems like every page. If you want a window into the world that Luther was fighting against, Dreher provides it. Yes, the monastery was a way of fighting the moral degradation of Europe. But it still lacks the power to save. Instead, I wish Dreher saw that the trap of the monastery and the trap of sexual promiscuity both cover the same hole. The legalist and the antinomian are both eating the same fruit as Eve.
A lack of religious freedom—The Baptist Problem
There is a hole the size of Rhode Island in The Benedict Option. I can’t think of a single example of premillienialist Baptists every doing well in a separate religious community.
If you think that the world is getting worse, then go preach. But if you think that God’s plan is to establish his kingdom through an intentional community, I suppose you are a post-millennialist and you just might get suckered into The Benedict Option.
But Moore to the point, in a Benedict community made up of “Catholics, Orthodox, and Evangelicals” who all believe in the same cultural norms, what happens when the Evangelical starts to witness to the Catholic? What if the Catholic gets saved? Does he get baptized? Does anyone actually think this kind of community will last through the first deacon meeting?
If it did last, it would do so like Geneva or Zurich—in other words, Baptists need not apply. Now I’m sure that Dreher realizes this. He has to, right? But he doesn’t acknowledge it. At no point does he wink and say, “but honestly, this really wouldn’t work in an ecumenical sense at all.” I’m not saying that the Benedictine monks would have drowned any Anabaptists that snuck in, but they definitely wouldn’t have let them preach.
The truth is, a Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, sin-confronting Baptist wouldn’t fit in any culture in world history. And he certainly wouldn’t fit in a monastery with Latin chants. But that’s ok, because that’s not how God made us.
He made us to stand out like a sore thumb. He made us to be different from the world. We recognize the world is getting worse (and has been since Acts 2). But we are optimistic. Our optimism is not in a political movement, or even in the power of community. But it is in the world-tilting power of the gospel of grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
If you believe that, then the Benedict Option is not for you.
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