Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What about the Benedict Option?

Have you heard of “the Benedict Option”? It has been emphasized for years by Rod Dreher, and his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, was just published on March 14. On that very day, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that Dreher’s work was “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

     Rod Dreher (b. 1967) is an interesting guy. He is a senior editor and prolific blogger at The American Conservative (TAC), a bi-monthly journal co-founded by Pat Buchanan. According to their website, Dreher is one of eight, all white men, on the TAC “team.”

Dreher was raised as a nominal Methodist, but he converted to Catholicism at age 26. In 2006 he converted again, this time to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. His views on Christianity are as conservative as his social and political views.

Although his only university degree is a BA in journalism (from LSU in his home state of Louisiana), Dreher seems to be well-read. His emphasis on the Benedict Option (BenOp) comes from Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s influential book After Virtue (1981).

To a large extent, Dreher seems to be a pessimist—or an alarmist. For example, he thinks the world now is “growing ever more hostile” toward true Christians (p. 2). “Progressives, he writes, “sneer at claims of anti-Christian discrimination or persecution.” But, he warns his readers, “Don’t you believe them” (p. 179). 
     Dreher’s main point is fairly simple: Christians who wish to maintain their faith (and that of their children) must separate from mainstream society and try to live in intentional communities—although not necessarily “in the hills.” This is not just for their own sake, but also for the future of the Christian faith.

Benedict of Nursia (480-547), for whom the BenOp is named, is known as the father of medieval monasticism, which, in turn, has been heralded as the “preserver of Western civilization.” If not completely in the same way, Dreher is calling Christians today to the same task: withdrawal from the dominant culture in order to help preserve traditional Christianity.

As a true conservative, in the primary sense of that term, Dreher sees the BenOp as a needed strategy for conserving or preserving the true faith, keeping it from not only from being swallowed up by secular society but also from being perverted by liberal “Christians.”

     I first became aware of the BenOp when I read the Winter 2017 issue of Plough, the quarterly publication of the Bruderhof. (See here for what I wrote about Plough elsewhere.) I was both attracted and repelled by what I read.

As a committed Anabaptist Christian, I agree with Ted Grimsrud, a notable Mennonite theologian, who wrote a long (29 pages!) four-part blog article about the BenOp: “I believe that Christians should always think in terms of living in countercultural communities and having a countercultural sensibility.

I also agree with Dreher’s strong rejection of the consumerism and hedonism rampant in Western society.

My main disagreement, though, is with regard to what he says about gay rights. Throughout much of the book (e.g., see pp. 179ff.) Dreher seems to assert that being Christian clearly means being anti-gay.

According to Dreher’s analysis, the present discrimination against or persecution of Christians—harsh treatment most likely to grow stronger in the future—is (or will be) primarily because of their refusal to countenance the full equality of gays/lesbians in society.

This aspect of the Benedict Option, however, which denies some people’s civil rights, is certainly neither good nor necessary.


  1. The first comments received this morning are from Thinking Friend Bill Locke in Colorado. Here are his pointed and pertinent views:

    "Good morning Dr. Seat--seems to me a lot of religion today is more a guise for bigotry than true belief and I wonder if the Benedict Option has not already started, perhaps not only in the religious sense, in the form of charter schools, exclusive gated communities, certain clubs and associations.

    "I note the KC diocese is no longer sponsoring Girl Scouts because of some of the people that organization has honored--the Mormons are no longer sponsoring Boy Scouts, I guess because of the same reason.

    "John Cleese said that conservative Christians in the USA apparently think the Beatitudes are a Chinese hoax. Where do we go from here?"

    1. Thanks, Bill, for your pointed and pertinent comments. As I have written in previous blog articles, it seems to me that a key aspect of the life and teachings of Jesus, including the Beatitudes, is love and acceptance of others--inclusion rather than exclusion. So whether it is the Catholics excluding the Girl Scouts, the Mormons excluding the Boy Scouts, or the followers of the Benedict Option who exclude gays/lesbians and those who include them, they all seem to me to be moving contrary to the spirit of Jesus.

      To be fair, I need to say that Dreher does say that gays/lesbians should not personally be treated harshly--but he also emphasizes that they should be celibate.

  2. And then I received the following comments from Eric Dollard, my faithful Thinking Friend in Chicago.

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about Dreher's book.

    "There are many issues raised by Dreher's book, but I agree with your perspective. Although Christians are being persecuted in some places, especially in the Middle East, the biggest challenge to Christianity in America (and Europe) is consumerism and its underlying hedonism.

    In an increasingly polarized society, hiding in separate communities only makes polarization worse. To affirm the full dignity of every human being, one must not be afraid of other opinions and he or she should be an example of compassion, humility, and simplicity. That's a tall order in any modern society.

    As an aside, Orthodox Christianity is certainly a fascinating institution. I could tell many stories about my encounters with it, but I will spare you."

  3. I have heard of the Benedict Option through both Catholic radio(EWTN), and some Orthodox postings. The concept is probably good for some, as is monasticism, but most need to live out their live within the culture to which they belong - living lives of decency and productivity, pursing theosis rather than the vices which so easily entrap us.

    I have seen 3 non-monastic communities, and I'm aware of another through working the Census. Two were Christian, one was a cult, one was a rag-tag group of Veterans who no longer fit in society. I have also heard of one Orthodox priest who is gaining attention within Orthodoxy and Catholicism by only performing sacramental marriage weddings with no civil marriage component.

    We are called to be in the world, and to be of service, but not to be of the world. Persecution of the Church is and should be natural. Christ said to expect it. The lives of martyrs past and present give testimony of this. Christ's final love commandment is being lost - that is not new - followers of Christ have naturally divisive among themselves from the beginning.

    It is probably not bad to congregate with those with whom one has an affinity, but the key is to not lose hold of the LOVE commandments - Love the LORD your G_d. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Love one another.

    The Benetict Option is worth considering for those called to the Monastic life, and maybe those facing persecution, so they can encourage one another. But not as a prepper movement.

  4. Although quiet, I know several celibate, gay friends within the Church - across the brands from Catholic and Orthodox, to Baptist and Christian, and several others. I am also aware of the pedophiles among them. But we are all human, none is righteous, and all have a predilection to at least one of the vices. Most churches seem to have blind spots and favor one vice over another, but the scriptures and Church tradition do not. And as stated above, the love commandments must be a priority.

  5. Dr. Glenn Hinson of Kentucky, a Thinking Friend and a superlative church historian and also a proponent of Christian contemplation, gave me permission to share his comments sent in an email earlier this morning:

    "I have deep appreciation for the Benedictine tradition, thanks to friendship with Thomas Merton, but I don’t think most sincere Christians can opt for this 'Christ against culture' stance put forth in this book.

    "The contemplative aspect of the tradition that goes back behind Benedict to the Desert Fathers and Mothers is something our age and culture desperately need, as Merton contended. It might be possible to form some communities like the 'Families of St. Benedict' Merton formed in a rural area near his monastery, but I don’t think this can happen on a large scale.

    "Mennonite Amish offer a Protestant version, and you can see its limits. It's too tied to one culture, and culture is always changing.

    "It is possible to be contemplatives in a world of action, as Merton contended, but restructuring a whole society would require something very different.

    "I took a stab at a possible way we could do what Merton proposes in 'A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle' (1974), which I originally gave as the Edwin Stephens Griffiths Lecture in South Wales in 1970, as I tried to figure out how I could apply the insights of the tradition of St. Benedict a la Merton in today’s world."

  6. Local Thinking Friend, and pastor, Rob Carr shares the following comments (as part of a longer email:

    "My own sense of the opportunity the western church (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) has in this era of rapid change is to value the capacity of a contemplative spacious stance in the world--to be living its life from a deep spiritual authenticity (Dreher would resonate) which requires a devotion to some form contemplative practice (which requires a purist/committed mindset--monastic rhythm, e.g.). But which results NOT in purism or separatism but in a capacity to hold all the opposites with an encompassing love. I do think this is the fundamental hunger of the soul--and modeled by Jesus who was not at all a purist."

  7. Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona sent these comments about the BenOp:

    "Thanks for your latest blog. I didn't get a good feeling for the Benedict Option.

    "Christianity was born in the worst and most hostile environment that could be imagined and yet it not only survived, but grew across the world. Christianity's problem is not on the outside but on the inside. If we went into our little communities, we would have the same problems as we have now because the weakness is within. How can we be salt and light to a world if we are not in it?

    "We are supposed to 'overcome the world,' not let it overcome us. I can't believe withdrawal is God's way. This is a fallen world now, and what would it look like if the Christians were not in it?"

  8. In the gospels Jesus is reported to frequently take quiet breaks with a few disciples for short periods. We can all relate to the need for these. It was John the Baptizer who lived in the wilderness, where others were at times called to visit him. The Essenes built a whole community in the wilderness, and appear to be the ones who left us the Dead Sea scrolls. In contrast, Jesus came eating and drinking, and visiting people where they lived and worked. He regularly commented on issues of the day, such as Sabbath laws and paying taxes. Were He to appear today, I suspect He would comment on quantum mechanics and find applications for chaos theory. Jesus would not hide from the world. He is the Messiah.

  9. Here are comments from local Thinking Friend Bob Southard. (I received these comments by email yesterday along with permission to post them here, but failed to do that until now.)

    "The kernel here is the power of community. The future of the Christian faith is in the counter-cultural but the deceptive word is preservation. The preservation of The faith is in spending our truth sacrificially rather than hiding out to preserve it."

  10. We all benefit from your reflection, and our own, on contemporary movements and options. In this case, I think one can value the Rule of St. Benedict without being snared into a fearful reactionary stance that opposes LBGT rights. I doubt Benedict had anything to say in his day about LBGT debates, but he and the Rule of St. Benedict are very clear about hospitality and being open to all. I don’t think we need a “Benedict” option as presented. Ditto your view. I disagree with David Brooks on this one.
    Christianity is a wide movement that has room for many, and a need for multiple ways to live out Christian values. As an example of the diversity there was in the middle ages, as well as now, I am reminded of another medieval Christian movement and a Rule that nurtures another kind of spirituality that was influential then and can speak to today, i.e., the Rule of St. Francis and contemporary Franciscans like Richard Rohr who espouse what they describe as an “alternate orthodoxy”. “We do not think ourselves into a way of living, but we live ourselves into a way of thinking.” (Cf the Center for Action and Contemplation, https://cac.org-cac/missionvision/ )

    1. Larry, thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments. Certainly criticism of Dreher's use (or misuse) of St. Benedict should in no way be seen as a criticism of "The Rule of Saint Benedict," which has such a long and venerable history.

      To be fair to David Brooks, I must point out that he was quite critical of some of Dreher's ideas or emphases--especially of his position on LGBT people. By saying it was the "most important religious book of the decade," he was not by any means saying that he completely agreed with it.

      Thanks, too, for referring to Richard Rohr, whom I am quite fond of. I also recently saw, and noted the importance of, his statement that you cited.

  11. Thinking Friend Patrick Crews posted the following comments on Facebook a few minutes ago (after I had posted a link to this blog article there):

    "In brief I can see such an intentional community based on purity and separatism easily becoming a cult. I can agree that our society based on Consumerism is toxically flawed, but I would be very reluctant to be part of a community based on preserving religious fundamentals. it's always an invitation for abuse.

    "Please note that I'm not talking about actual monastic communities, but religiously gated communities that are 'family friendly' but closed rather than open societies."

  12. While reading your blog (after a two month delay) it occurred to me that the Amish are an example of living the Benedict Option. Then as I read through the comments I see that Dr. Glenn Hinson has already noticed that fact. The reason Amish wear plain clothes and shun modern conveniences is to provide a constant reminder to themselves (and to others) that their community is separate from the secular world.