Review: The Benedict Option

D. G. Hart

On the centennial of J. Gresham Machen’s birth (July 28, 1881), Charles Dennison observed in New Horizons that the man in many ways responsible for the OPC died a long way from where he started. Dennison, then the historian for the OPC, was not just commenting on the distance between Baltimore and Bismarck, North Dakota, where Machen succumbed to pneumonia. The historian was also drawing attention to the cultural isolation that Machen experienced over the course of his life. The son of a well-to-do Baltimore attorney, he studied at elite universities and rubbed shoulders with the nation’s wealthiest and most influential persons. Yet Machen went to his grave as the leader of a small, obscure, and largely discredited cause—ministering the Word of God according to Presbyterian orthodoxy. Machen’s life as a pilgrim in exile, Dennison believed, was also true for the OPC. This was not a communion characterized by prestige or cultural influence. Dennison repeatedly called upon Orthodox Presbyterians to remember and embrace their heritage. The OPC, he wrote, “begins where Machen ended and that is her secret, her genius, and her calling.” The OPC’s founding was a recognition that Christians are called to be strangers and aliens, a peculiar people, not transformers of culture.

Not everyone in the OPC shared Dennison’s call for cultural exile or his interpretation of the church’s founding, but Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, is a confirmation that Machen and Dennison had a point in eschewing the American mainstream for ecclesiastical authenticity. A writer at The American Conservative with a remarkable knack for hitting the sweet spot of discontent among Americans who prefer tradition to progress, Dreher with this book adds to his reputation for thinking beyond small government, a strong national defense, balanced budgets, and family values. He argues that American Christians (and he tries to write with Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox in mind—he has been all three) are in the midst of a deluge that threatens the family, morality, communities, and churches. He quotes an Anglican theologian approvingly: “There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.”

The current revolution in sexuality and marriage is the culmination of a long process, Dreher argues, begun even in the late Middle Ages, which saw the secular triumph over the sacred. Christians now confront a situation similar to what Benedict of Nursia experienced at the time of the Roman Empire’s collapse in the fifth century. Just as Benedict formed a monastic community to preserve a Christian witness and culture, Dreher argues, so also contemporary believers need a “Benedict Option” to preserve the faith and pass it on to future generations. (The anomaly of monastic ideals and having children is a conundrum that runs through this book.)

The qualities that informed monasticism—order, work, prayer, asceticism, stability, community, and hospitality—are features that Dreher recommends to Christians in their everyday lives. This Benedictine outlook means above all being intentional about distinguishing Christianity from the surrounding culture. Parents should consider living in neighborhoods with like-minded Christians. They should also pay attention to the education children receive by looking at classical Christian academies or homeschooling. Christians should also, Dreher says, recognize the value of hard work and the virtues it instills, one of which includes rejecting the casual attitude to sex that prevails in the modern West. It also means that Christians should be self-conscious about their use of social media and other technologies that distract from either reflection or quiet.

The greatest weakness of Dreher’s prescription is his understanding of Christianity. On the one hand, he idealizes a medieval social order, the kind that sustained Benedictine monasticism. That older European society assumed God haunted everything, all parts of creation and society were also signs of God’s presence, and the whole world was sacramental. This means, of course, that Protestantism rained on Christendom’s party by destroying the sacred canopy that bequeathed religious significance to all parts of human existence. Luther and his fellow travelers were not entirely to blame for upending Christendom. Renaissance humanists and modern scientists and philosophers also added to the decline of Christian Europe. But Dreher’s narrative of the West reinforces the idea, made popular recently by Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation (2012), that Protestants “segregated the sacred from the secular” in ways that led to the current climate of cultural relativism. Whatever the merits of that historical claim, and there are a few, it conflicts with Dreher’s larger aim of writing for all of “us” Christians. He hopes that all Christians can embrace the Benedict Option, and yet the book implicitly favors older over modern forms of Christianity. Dreher should have been more forthright about his own religious beliefs.

On the other hand, Dreher adopts a utilitarian approach to Christianity. It is most evident in his chapter on church life, which begins with a quotation by historian Robert Louis Wilkin, that “nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture.” Dreher does use the word “gospel” a number of times, but whoever indexed the book did not think the subject merited an entry in the index. It was omitted for good reason, since Dreher’s book shows more concern for culture than for the gospel, that is, salvation. Indeed, the sacraments and liturgical worship become vehicles to raise an awareness of God’s presence in the universe, while iPads and smart phones are distractions from religious meaning in the world. Dreher follows that line of conservative thought that sees cult (or worship) as the basis for culture. The logic inherent in tracing culture to cult might make sense of Old Testament Israel, but the example of Christ and the apostles does not. They gave little attention to culture (beyond ending Old Testament requirements) because they were more interested in salvation than assessing the polyglot world of the Roman Empire. Had Dreher started with a concern for the salvation of the next generation of Christians, he may well have had to distinguish among the branches of Christianity the one with the true gospel.

Despite this defect, Dreher deserves credit for embracing counterculturalism, and readers will find in parts of this book sound advice for evaluating unhealthy activities or reconsidering seemingly benign assumptions about modern life. At the same time, Dreher is late in his critique. Not only did Machen see in his day how accommodating culture had compromised mainline Presbyterianism, but fifty years before the OPC was formed Abraham Kuyper also recognized the path on which liberal European society was headed and took measures to preserve a Christian witness by forming separate institutions (church, schools, media, political parties). Because Reformed Christians have been worried about the culture for over a century, some of what Dreher writes may sound familiar and even repetitive. For that reason, readers may also wonder after reading Dreher what took Christians like him so long to wake up. The book is a testimony to the dangers that even mainstream Christians now see in the wider world. If mainline Protestants had not been so dismissive of Machen and the OPC eight decades ago, the Machen Option might be as worthy of consideration as the Benedict Option that Dreher now proposes.

The author, an OP ruling elder, teaches history at Hillsdale College. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher, is published by Sentinel, 2017. Hardback, 262 pages, list price $25.00.


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