There is a new ‘cool’ book in town! It’s a New York Times bestseller, endorsed by Russell Moore, Archbishop Charles J.Chaput, and, the ultimate accolade, Carl R.Trueman! How could I resist? Especially as it is subtitled “A strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation”. With such endorsements, and always wanting to stay up with what’s ‘cool’ in the Christian world – I rushed out to buy Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option.
And I was not disappointed. This is a superb book, well written, stimulating, insightful, and full of challenges and ideas for the church in the West today. I loved it. And yet… I think it is a book that in some areas is profoundly flawed, in such a way that it could be harmful to the church. There are so many excellent things in it, that I hesitate to critique it, and like Carl Trueman, it is the kind of book that I would give to thoughtful people in my own congregation – (by thoughtful I mean those who can exercise a degree of discernment because they are deeply grounded in Scripture). For new Christians, and those who don’t have such a deep grounding I think this book could actually be quite misleading.
In this review I intend to go through it chapter by chapter – identifying some of the key issues, great suggestions and major concerns – and using as much as possible Dreher’s own words.
In general I find that Drehers’s critique of the American church is spot on. It is perhaps best summed up in his quote in the introduction “We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian” – p2. However this is also a major flaw in the book, because it is a critique of the American church, particularly the evangelicals, which seems to think that the American church is the default for the whole Western church. Whilst there is a great deal in Rod’s critique that does apply to the church in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, there is also much that is quite specific to the current American culture.
Chapter One – The Great Flood – in which the author describes the decline of the church in the West. He puts it bluntly. The culture war has been lost. The public square has been lost.
“ We in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognise it. Our scientists, our judges, or princes, our scholars, and our scribes – they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human. Our barbarians have exchanged the animal pelts and spears of the past for designer suits and smart phones.” p.17.
He suggests that the flood has come in and it’s time for us to stop fighting the flood with sandbags, and instead to build an ark. “Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation”. This is a statement that to me in the context of Christianity in the United Kingdom doesn’t really make any sense. It is one of several Homer Simpson ‘doh’ moments in the book! It is the American evangelical church that was foolish enough to allow itself to be used as election fodder for one particular political party and philosophy – a folly of which the fruits are now being reaped. I know of very few Christians in the United Kingdom who think that the way to bring the kingdom of God is through political action, unless they are uber liberals who don’t really care about the Bible, or the new globalised Christians who follow the televangelists on mostly American Christian television.
Dreher suggests a solution. Going back to the overthrow of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the sixth century, he refers to the foundation of the Benedictine order and its subsequent impact upon European culture, as a model for us today – hence the title of the book! Benedict option Christians look to Scripture and Benedict’s rule for ways to cultivate practices and communities”. P.18
And that also said another small alarm bell for me – Scripture plus is always a dangerous model!
Chapter 2 – The Roots of the Crisis – in which the author describes the fragmentation of society as religion declines.
This is an excellent big picture summary of how we have arrived at where we are at. At times I think it is over simplistic, but it can hardly be otherwise in seeking to survey Western history over hundreds of years in a few pages. It is as handy a summary of the history of Western philosophy, especially since the enlightenment that you will come across. And it saves you having to read the whole of Charles Taylor!
“Freud’s answer was to replace religion with psychology. In his therapeutic vision, we should stop the fruitless searching for a non-existent source of meaning and instead seek self-fulfillment. The pursuit of happiness was not a quest for unity with God, or sacrificial dedication to a cause greater than oneself rather a search to satisfy the Self” p.41
Ch. 3 – A Rule for Living – in which the author describes the inspiration he received from visiting the Monastery of St Benedict in Italy –
“ Legend has it that in an argument with a cardinal, Napoleon pointed out that he had the power to destroy the church. “Your Majesty,” the Cardinal replied, “we, the clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.” p.49
“To use Paul Benedict’s phrase, which he repeated many times, the Western world today lives as though God does not exist,” he says. “I think that’s true. Fragmentation, fear, disorientation, drifting – those are widely diffused characteristics of our society.” Father Cassian. P.50
This chapter discusses the Rule of St Benedict – questions of order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality and balance. There is much in here to learn from, to practice and to provoke thought:
“ In the first decade of my life as an adult Christian, I left church as soon as services were over. Getting involved with the people there was not interesting. Just Jesus and me was all I wanted and all I needed, or so I thought. We might say that I wasn’t interested in joining their pilgrimage, but I preferred to be a tourist at church – I was too spiritually immature to understand how harmful this was.” P. 68
However there are some red flags to be raised about this chapter.
One of the problems is simply that what is presented almost as something new and innovative, at least to modern Western evangelicalism, is something that I have grown up with all my Christian life. Prayer, the Protestant work ethic, the need to deny oneself being rooted in the community of the church, showing hospitality and living a balanced life are not new – at least in Scottish Presbyterian evangelicalism! I’m not saying that we got it right, or that we always practice what we preach, but I’m not sure I need to go to a monastery in Italy to learn what the Bible clearly teaches!
“What we think does not matter as much as what we do – and how faithfully we do it.” – I think this quote is profoundly mistaken, not recognising the absolute direct connection between what we think and what we do. There is a danger that this attitude disconnects the mind from the body in a way that is spiritually unhealthy.
Likewise the following quote is theologically and spiritually unhelpful.
“Right belief (orthodoxy) is essential, but holding the correct doctrines in your mind as you little good if your heart – the seat of the will – remains unconverted. That requires putting those right beliefs into action through right practice (orthopraxy), which over time achieves the goal also for Timothy when he commanded him to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1Timothy 4:7).
Perhaps it is badly written, but what this suggests is that in order to be converted we need to do the right things. Surely Scripture teaches that we do the right things because we are converted, not in order to be converted? Although I would fully endorse what Dreher says about spiritual discipline, it seems to me that he is one step away from a form of legalism which can do a great deal of harm.
Ch. 4 – A New Kind of Christian Politics – in which the author argues for a retreat from the kind of politics but many Christians in America have engaged with, replacing it with an anti-political politics.
“He (Donald Trump) – is not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.” P.79
This chapter only makes sense in America – where the identification of the religious right with the Republican Party, and the secular left with the Democrats has created the culture wars that we hear so much about. Dreher notices that Trump really did not take on board the great issues for Conservative Christians – abortion and religious liberty. I’m not part of American culture and society but is it really the case that “holding the church together during the Trump years will pose a strong challenge to us all.” As American Christianity really that political, weak and fickle?
Dreher recognises that although the church must withdraw from its previous political role it cannot vacate the public square entirely and must continue to pray for, and prophesy to, political leaders. He argues for a localism, rather than engagement with national issues, other than the question of religious liberty.
“ Alexis de Tocqueville was convinced that democracy could not survive the loss of Christian faith. Self-government requires shared convictions about moral truths. Christian faith drew men outside themselves and taught them that laws must be firmly rooted in a moral order revealed and guaranteed by God.”P.89
He believes that we are heading for a new Dark Ages (although again I want to question whether the Dark Ages really were that dark?!)
“ In the waning decades of the Western Roman Empire, Augustine described society as preoccupied with pleasure seeking, selfishness, and living for the moment.”P.90
“ I personally think that a no less effective, exceptionally painful, and in the short-term practically irreparable way of eliminating the human race or individual nations would be a decline into barbarism, the abandonment of reason and learning, the loss of traditions and memory. The ruling regime – partly intentionally, partly thanks to its essential nihilistic nature – has done everything it can to achieve that goal. The aim of independent citizens movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must not be discouraged by previous failures, and we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.” Vaclav Banda p.94
His suggestions as to how we do this anti-political politics?
“Here’s how to get started with the anti-political politics of the Benedict option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbours. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen and one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmers market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department. The point is not that we should stop voting or being active in conventional politics. The point, rather, is that this is no longer enough.” P.98
Again I don’t find much to disagree with here. But it is another one of those Homer Simpson moments – when was it any different? Did the American church ever really think that voting and being active in conventional politics was enough? If that is true, (and my limited experience of American Christians suggests that it is not), then it’s little wonder that the church is in such trouble. I do think however that the emphasis on education it is absolutely key, and to that we will return.
Chapter 5 – A Church for All Seasons – in which the author argues that only a renewal of the church through the Benedict option will bring about a renewal of Christian culture.
“ But you cannot give what you do not possess. Too many of our churches function as secular entertainment centres with religious morals slapped on top, when they should be functioning as the living, breathing body of Christ. Too many churches have succumbed to modernity, rejecting the wisdom of past ages, treating worship as a consumer activity, and allowing parishioners to function as unaccountable, atomised members. The sad truth is, when the world sees us, it often fails to see anything different from non-believers. Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realising that, having no distinct culture of their own, they have been co-opted by the secular culture they wish to evangelise.” p.102
His analysis of the weakness of much of the modern church is spot on – as the above quote shows. But his solution leaves a lot to be desired.
“ If today’s churches are to survive the new Dark Age, they must stop “being normal”. We will need to commit ourselves more deeply to our faith, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes. By rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our lives on the church community, and tightening church discipline, we will, by God’s grace, again become the peculiar people we should always have been.” p.102
The trouble is what does he mean by this? And what about what he misses out? What is liturgical worship? In one sense surely all worship is liturgical in some form or other? He is really arguing for a specific type of liturgy – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, formal, highly sensual, mysterious, dark. It is indeed the case that liturgy should be about what God has to say to us. And that is why in biblical churches the reading; singing, praying and especially the preaching of the Word are central. As that is what is missing – the glaring omission in the list above is the preaching of the Word. His description of Evangelicalism as being based on revivalism may be true in much of the American context, but it is not true for much of the rest of the world. I agree entirely that how we worship God it is vital but I find it more than a little ironic that what the puritans were so derided for, is now back in vogue. Why must the liturgy be assumed to be that which the reformers were so concerned to reform?
“The aroma of incense, the sound of church bells, the glow from candles, and the vivid hues of icons – all these make a powerful pre-rational impression on the mind and prepare us for communion with the Lord in word and sacrament.” I’m afraid that this kind of talk sends shivers down my spine. Is it not the case that people have as often being led away from Christ by such religious liturgies, as have been led to him? In some said I don’t think that what he is suggesting is radical enough. Actually the world loves this kind of liturgy. It’s what they think religion is, and should be. They like our religion to be mysterious, for the initiated, cultic. But I prefer the words of a lady who visited our church in Brora for the first time and went home declaring to her family “I’m going back. These people could worship God in a field.”
The emphasis on church discipline is excellent – but again, and I hope that this doesn’t sound too pompous, this is not new. In the reformed tradition Church discipline has always been regarded as one of the marks of the church and we do try to practice it in a biblical manner.
I also love the emphasis on evangelism with goodness and beauty.
“ Art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith” – Pope Benedict – p.117
It is indeed true that everything we do is in a sense evangelism. But again I think he swings the pendulum too far. Of course we are to be involved in mercy ministries, and demonstrating beauty and creativity through the arts, but at the end of the day it is through the foolishness of the preaching of the cross that people are converted. In one sense I would argue that mercy ministries, beauty and creativity are the fruit of the preaching of the cross, not the other way round.
Chapter 6 – The Idea of a Christian Village – in which the author argues for the Christian home to be a domestic Monastery, for church members to live close to one another and for relearning the lost art of community.
Recognising the problem of identifying Christianity with a particular political party, Dreher turned to the idea of the Christian family as central. He argues for regular family prayer, faithful commitment to church, not conforming to the surrounding culture, watching over your children’s friends, not idolising the family, living closer to your church family, building community across denominations, avoiding perfectionism and getting involved in education. Apart from the familiar refrain, that none of this is really new, one just simply says Amen.
“ In the years to come, Christians will face mounting pressure to withdraw their children from public schools. Secular private schools may offer a better education, but their moral and spiritual ethos will likely be scarcely better. And established Christian schools may not be sufficiently orthodox, academically challenging, or morally sound. A tight communal network generates the social capital needed to launch a school or to reform and revive an existing one.” – p.143
Which leads us on to:
Chapter 7 – Education as Christian Formation – in which the author argues the classical Christian education is the key.
“ To compartmentalise education, separating it from the life of the church, is to create a false distinction.” P.148
“ The best way to create a generation of aimless know-nothings who feel no sense of obligation beyond themselves is to deprive them of a past.” P.154
I found this chapter particularly helpful, as I have been wrestling through this issue myself. John Knox taught that where you had a church there you should also have a school. The education system in Scotland, from primary school to university was thoroughly Christian. But those days sadly are long gone, and to many of us have just acquiesced I’m gone along with the poison that is been poured into our culture and our children. I was especially interested in his commendation of classical Christian schools that has certainly prompted me to investigate them. In this area I think his challenge as one that is directly applicable to us in Scotland.
Chapter 8 – Preparing for Hard Labour – in which the author argues for a different Christian understanding of work, employment and wealth.
“Given how much Americans have come to rely on middle-class comfort, freedom and stability, Christians will be sorely tempted to say or do anything asked of us to hold on to what we have.” P.193
We need to grasp what work is for – and especially re-discover the dignity of physical work. We need to move away from the 24-hour shopping society. And realize that our Christian principles will cost us jobs although we also need to be prudent as well as faithful and bold. We should be entrepreneurial, buy Christian even if it costs more and build Christian employment networks. We should expect to be poorer and more marginalized.
Most of the above is fairly straightforward sanctified common sense – although I’m not convinced that it is a good idea to always ‘buy Christian’ or have Christian employment networks. And in this country it would probably be illegal! But again this is a useful chapter and again there is nothing new here. This is in effect the Protestant work ethic on which the prosperity of Northern Europe and the USA was built!
Chapter 9 – Eros and the New Christian Counterculture – in which the author argues that the Sexual Revolution is far more important than many Christians realize and that it can never be reconciled with orthodox Christianity.
This chapter alone is worth the price of the book! It has a good understanding of what is going on in the wider culture and some great help on how to respond as the church. He argues for a biblical perspective which is not moralistic and which does not rely on the State to educate our children in sex and sexuality. He talks about how we help those who are single, including those who are same sex attracted, to be part of the community of the church and he ends by urging us to fight pornography with everything we’ve got. Superb.
“ For a Christian, there is only one right way to use the gift of sex: within marriage between one man and one woman. This is heresy to the modern world, and a hard saying upon which hearts, friendships, families, and even churches have been broken. There is no core teaching of the Christian faith that is less popular today, and perhaps none more important to obey.” P.196
“ Pornography literally rewires the brain, making it very difficult for long-time users to be aroused by actual human beings” p.215
Chapter 10 – Man and the Machine – in which the author warns that the technological revolution can be as dangerous as the sexual, and suggests some practical remedies.
Again this is an insightful and helpful blend of analysis and practical advice. Technology is not morally neutral. The Internet is the floodgate of liquid modernity because it accelerates the process of change and the confusion of knowledge.
“ There is a simple matter of individuals not being able to manage their smartphone use, using online access to watch pornography, or flopping onto a basement couch and playing video games all day instead of getting on with the business of life. But it’s deeper than that. Online technology, in its various forms, is a phenomenon that by its very nature fragments and scatters our attention nothing else, radically compromising our ability to make sense of the world, physiologically rewiring our brains and rendering us increasingly helpless against our impulses.” p. 219
We need digitally fast as an ascetic practice, take smartphones away from kids, keep social media out of worship, do things with our hands and question ‘Progress’.
“It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines” Wendell Berry – p236
Conclusion: The Benedict Decision – in which the author summarises his case.
This is a good book. There is much to learn and much to consider. Its overall analysis of Western society and the American church is superb. What prevents it being a great book is the fact that it is culturally quite limited and specific. It really doesn’t make that much sense outside of the USA. It is also lacking in my view in its biblical perspective. I have no desire to exchange the Bible for the Rule of Benedict. I know that Dreher is not saying that we should. He is most certainly not a bible minus guy. But he does come across as a bible plus guy. Yes we need the Bible but we also need the Benedict option.
I don’t agree. I don’t think we need any program. Ironically the programatisation of the Christian church is one of the fruits of modernity and post-modernity that I think we could do without. I know it’s a truism but the Word of God is enough. That is not to say that we ignore tradition, or centuries of Christian thought and reflection – precisely the opposite. But it is to say that I did not need to go to an Italian monastery to learn that it is good to pray, live in community, work hard, observe the Lord’s Day, be salt and light in the culture, keep myself from being unspotted by the world, look after the widows and orphans in their distress, make music to the glory of God, be prepared for persecution, teach our children in the faith, love other believers, and not to trust in ‘princes’ or put my faith in political systems.
Drehers book is perhaps a necessary corrective to the aberrant political dumbed down theology which has taken hold of much of the US church (and thus influenced the rest of the evangelical world), but in my view it is an over corrective which should be read through the eyes of the early Church Fathers, the Reformers and the Puritans. I’m not sure I could fit John Knox’s heartfelt cry ‘Give me Scotland or I die’, or Abraham Kuypers ‘’There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!’ with the Benedict Option.
I hope this doesn’t sound too superspiritual or over pious but all I need is to know Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Give me Christ. Give me his Word. Give me His Spirit. Give me His people. Give me the Father. That’s my strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation. And with Christ I also get all things – so I really don’t see the need to retreat into a monastery. My inclination is more to go out to battle as long as I remember that our fight is not against flesh and blood and we do not use the weapons of this world. I need to be in the world, but not of it. I need to live with people who are dead in sins and trespasses. I need to live, eat, work and share with those who are the enemies of God. The only thing I must not do is worship with them, ignore them or hate them.
Despite these reservations I thank God for this book. It is one I will read again (and on the third reading may find that I was wrong!) and there are parts of it that will stimulate to action. Thanks Rod.
Footnote: As it happens I am half way through reading Vishal Mangalwadis ‘Truth and Transformation. So far it is I think a better option for the Church in the 21st Century….I will write a full review when I am finished.