A Review of Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York, NY: Sentinel, 2017) by Ryan Setliff.
[originally published on November 2018]
Here’s the Cliff Notes’ version of the Benedict Option; in case you missed the apologetic for the monastic trap; simply put, it’s a failed strategy of attrition in the cultural war when the only viable alternative is an insurgent strategy.
In allusion to the science-fiction protagonist Hari Seldon in the Issac Asimov novel Foundation who tries to rescue a future fictional galactic empire by chartering an intellectual redoubt of knowledge and wisdom, author Rod Dreher sees himself as a guru trying to head off the decline of Christian culture in an essentially a post-Christian era by creating monastic silos. That he means well is admitted. That he has just cause for alarm is granted. But his tactics are ultimately amiss.
Polemical critiques of this book shouldn’t be conflated to be simply an issue of Western Christianity versus Dreher’s Orthodoxy. There’s room for even the Protestant and Catholic to appropriate the hypothesis as Dreher doesn’t narrow the communions that may embrace his “option” to just his newly adopted Orthodox communion.
There’s little reason to dispute Dreher’s claim that the Religious Right in the United States have engaged in a false triumphalism to speak of a ‘Moral Majority.’ The demographic transformation of the country over the last four years have done little to increase Christianity’s fortunes. The continual militant secularization of the academy has played a big part of the incremental secularization and dechristianization of America as secular humanism grips the thoughts of intellectuals. The broken families and social pathologies endemic in the United States manifest an obvious problem of America’s Sexual Revolution as four out of ten children are born out of wedlock nowadays.
While Christian conservatives may sympathize with Rod Dreher’s desire to see Christianity flourish once more, his prescription is woefully misguided. It has elicited criticisms from across Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant communions. What Dreher sees in monastic life carries a certain air of practical gnosticism and resignation to the world. The danger of ensconce in a cloister is that Christians become dominated by the barbarians who may not afford our little cloister the autonomy and freedom it needs. The militant secularization and mandated state secular humanist educational models of Sweden and Germany tend to point to the futility of such defeatism. He counsels Christians to build an “ark” and eschew “unwinnable political battles.” It’s the proverbial Ostrich in the sand strategy, one destined to fail, and one that should elicit refutation given the seriousness of what’s at stake.
One can only imagine the man (or perhaps his posterity) who takes the Benedict Option seriously eventually emerging from his cocoon like Charlton Heston’s character in The Planet of the Apes to survey a future wasteland devoid of humanity and feeling the compulsion to curse the very humanity that destroyed itself. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned in The Cost of Discipleship, the Christian must accept the reality that his prayer cloister is merely but part of the world. One cannot be salt and light in a dark cloister.
Dreher could contend he’s misunderstood or offers nuance as he proposes reengaging secular culture, but his tactics are fundamentally rooted in separation―a spiritual apartheid.