Rod Dreher is not an academic. He has no Ph.D. and does not teach at a university. Yet, he is able to take complex concepts of philosophy, sociology, history, etc. and explain them in ways that most people can grasp. He is also not a priest, pastor, or leader of a parachurch organization. Yet he writes and speaks as a layman with true spiritual depth. He shares his own struggles, faith, faults, and victories with a transparency and sincerity that we can resonate with. You would actually like to sit down with him and talk about life. And this is one of the great things about The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, it is not coming from an academic or denominational leader: it is coming from the ground up. And for the Benedict Option to work, that is exactly what is needed to get it going.
Of course, the success of the Benedict Option is also due to its timing. Though Rod alluded to the Benedict Option ten years ago in his book Crunchy Cons, I don’t know if most Christians would have been ready. Anyone who read Lesslie Newbingin 40 years ago, or Missional Church almost 20 years go will know the diagnosis of the decline of Christianity in the United States, but during these ten years since Rod mentioned the need for a new Benedict, so much has happened. The Millennial generation has shifted to the left on social norms and politics, marginal issues like same-sex marriage and transgender rights have become new norms, businesses have become arbiters of family values, sports is a tool for cultural enforcement, and what was once considered out-of-control political correctness on our campuses is now ubiquitous. I don’t need an academic to explain it to me, I see it everyday.
But there are other forces at work too. Technology like the internet and cell phones have brought us amazing amounts of information, but the ability to literally spend our whole lives on pointless trivia. The “authentic self” that philosopher Charles Taylor wrote of in his masterpiece The Secular Age, reached its apogee in Caitlyn and Bruce Jenner. Bruce Jenner, a Cold War hero to us in Generation X, became a cause celeb to Generation Z as Caitlyn Jenner. Transpose that Wheaties picture of Bruce in 1976, winner of the Olympic decathlon and “world’s greatest athlete” with Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair, and you see trajectory of where we are headed as a nation.
As Christians we did not want to believe the academics. Developing as a nation under the canopy of our country as a “city on a hill” from John Winthrop’s sermon A Model of Christian Charity, we always told ourselves we could “go back” to ideal times. Revivals did help, and many truly believed that with the right focus on the right segments of society, we could still transform the culture. But we finally find ourselves “strangers in a strange land” to steal a line from Robert Heinlein.
But Rod is counterculturalist, and we feel the rightness of his argument. Not in the sense that everything he says is correct, but that it is right to have this conversation. Jesus did say that He would build His Church and the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. But as Rod puts it in The Benedict Option, “he never said it would prevail in the West.” And this is Rod’s diagnosis, that the Church in the West is waning, and we must prepare to be counter-cultural, build our arks, and ride out the flood waters of the coming Dark Ages. Post-Christian American will become increasingly anti-Christian America.
When Benedict of Nursia wrote his rule for monks, he provided structure, order, and a Christian counter-cultural response to a collapsing Roman empire. He did not realize it would become a transmitter and receptacle of civilization and Christianity across much of Europe.
And this is what the Benedict Option is. It is the challenge of taking personal counter-cultural steps in our lives to form Christian communities that will be receptacles and transmitters of civilization and Christianity to a dark age all around us. It is something we must prepare for the long-term. There will be no quick fixes and early time lines. As Rod says in his book “the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with.”
With chapters dealing with politics, church life, Christian communities, education, work, sexuality, and technology, Dreher sketches broad outlines of what needs to happen in each of these areas to preserve some vestige of Christian normalcy. These outlines help us see how we need to find new ways of evangelism that highlight beauty and authenticity of life; show the goodness of God in understanding a biblical version of marriage, sex, and family; bind ourselves together in deeper relationships; value the life of the mind through Christian education; see work as a Christian calling; know the limits of technology and attempt to find space to enjoy nature, solitude, and contemplation; and open our hearts to God through new liturgies of prayer, fasting, and repentance. How these sketches are colored in is up to each individual, family, church, and community.
But they are provocative sketches. They make us think of what could be if we take action, and what we lose if we fail to act. They make us want to talk with someone about their “rightness” and see where the discussion could lead. I hope you will get a copy of The Benedict Option, read it, pass it on to a friend, family or church member, and talk about it. Debate it. Color in the details of those sketches. Then get out your tools and start building an ark.
If you like The Benedict Option, here are some other sources you should consider exploring.
The Benedict Option (Part 1) No Campus Left Podcast click here
In this podcast I interview Rod Dreher about his book with some general questions. Part 2 will come out soon where I turn to talk about education and ministry on the college campus.
Periodicals that will keep you thinking:
Books to help you understand how we got here:
A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor
After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
Books to help you solve the problem:
Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher
Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
You are What You Love by James K.A. Smith
Books for those ministering to college students
Soul Searching by Christian Smith
Lost in Translation by Christian Smith
Collegiate Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture by Steve Lutz