Rod Dreher believes that the culture war which began with the sexual revolution in the 1960s, has ended in defeat for Christian conservatives (pp. 3, 79) and there is no hope of being reversed (p. 89). Ultimately all faith among European and North American Christians will disappear (pp. 8, 12, 46, 202) and the only hope for them is a strategic withdrawal from business-as-usual in America (p. 2). In search for a model of survival Dreher turns to the sixth century monk St. Benedict. During a time of similar societal corruption Benedict withdrew to a cave for three years, eventually emerging to found 12 monasteries (pp. 14-18) and create a Rule (The Benedictine Rule) which showed the monks (and now us, by extension) how to order one’s life to be receptive to God’s grace (pp. 15, 47, 50-54). It was this monastic system, best exemplified by Benedict, that kept the faith alive in Europe during the medieval period (pp. 4, 49, 236). If the faith is to survive in the West in our times we must follow suit and “learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West” (p. 4). Thus, the Benedict Option “is a call to undertaking the long and patient work of reclaiming the real world from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life. It is a way of seeing the world and of living in the world that undermines modernity’s big lie: that humans are nothing more than ghosts in a machine, and we are free to adjust its settings in any way we like” (p. 236).
Dreher traces the moral fall of modern society to five landmark events that rocked Western civilization:
- In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or, in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality.
- The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
- The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy.
- The Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760—1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
- The Sexual Revolution (1960—present) (p. 23).
It should be noted that one of these events is the Reformation which, according to Dreher, brought about the collapse of religious unity and religious authority. This is a common complaint of Roman Catholicism concerning the Reformation, which not only shows Dreher’s bias but also perplexes this reviewer as to why Reformed Christian leaders such as Albert Mohler and Russell Moore are supportive of the Benedict Option. It should surprise no one that a book written by a former Roman Catholic (who now adheres to Eastern Orthodoxy) is favorable toward both systems and draws most of its examples and heroes from those traditions (e.g. pp, 48, 239). It is surprising, however, that those favorable toward the Reformation encourage others to read this book (note Russell Moore’s endorsement on the back cover).
Dreher rightly discerns that the influences of a secular society has seeped into the church. As a result biblical doctrine and tradition have been usurped by a “social disease” coined by some as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). The basic tenets of MTD are:
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die (p. 10).
Because MTD now dominates the church, the author correctly believes that many millennials are abandoning the church without even knowing what the church teaches (pp. 2, 9, 103-104).
The Benedict Option is not a detailed, highly structured program. Dreher calls for experimentation, creativity and variety in its application but some common features can be identified:
- Withdrawal by Christians (defined broadly to include almost any Christian tradition from Rome to Mormonism) from the main stream of society to avoid corruption.
- Practicing of a modern adaption of the Benedictine Rule including the Divine Office, contemplative prayer and lectio divina (pp. 58-60, 151, 228).
- Asceticism – the monastics believe that asceticism reins in the passions of the heart and trains the body and soul to put God above self (pp. 63-65). It breaks the power of bodily desires (pp. 114-115, 121, 228). Although there is not a shred of biblical support for this view, and Colossians 2:20-23 flatly contradicts it, the Benedict Option relies on asceticism as foundational.
- Withdrawal to communities of like-minded citizens who share the same values (pp. 83, 86, 93-99, 122).
- Fighting for religious liberty is critical (pp. 84-86).
- The Benedict Option must be centered on the church, but this means practicing a new monasticism (p. 161), liturgical worship, and embracing the traditions of the past, especially those handed down by the monks (pp. 101-121).
- Working together with other faiths which share similar values—an ecumenism of the trenches (pp. 136-138).
- Withdrawal from public education as well as private education and most home school programs, and replaced by classical Christian education from elementary through university levels (pp. 144-175).
- Withdrawal from the academic world to the trades. Dreher envisions tradesman and manufacturers who read Latin and “Great Books” (pp. 176-194) and hire Christians (pp. 188-189), but who have abandoned the academic and political world.
Dreher assures his readers that the Benedict Option is a movement led by God, not our minds (p. 140). This fits well with the monastic system which claimed direct mystical revelation from God (called enlightenment) and minimizes thinking, replacing it with contemplation. The author is on the same page as he writes:
What we think does not matter as much as what we do – and how faithfully we do it (p. 52). Through following the rule and ascetic practices we train our hearts “to love and to desire the right things, the things that are real, without having to think about it. It is acquiring virtue as a habit” (p. 57).
Dreher has swallowed the whole monastic system hook, line and sinker and is attractively offering it to naïve Christians as a viable option, through the example and teachings of Benedict. I was surprised that Dreher only briefly mentioned the Amish who are already practicing many of the Benedict Options: withdrawal from society, canonizing tradition, developing their own educational system, shunning academia for the trades, church-centered living, practicing church discipline and some forms of asceticism, and acceptance of mysticism. But Dreher wants his readers to return to Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions and so chooses Benedict as his patron saint.
The Benedict Option is insightful concerning history and culture, offering some helpful suggestions, but is highly dangerous if directly applied. The author does not draw his conclusions from Scripture but from Benedictine monasticism. In addition, the false gospel message and doctrines, over which the Reformation was fought, are never addressed. The reader would be wise to consider these factors before delving too deeply into the ideas of this book. For a clear understanding of monastic teachings adjusted for modern times see my book Out of Formation.
The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017) 262 pp., Hard $14.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel