Reviews of The Benedict Option began even before the book was released in March this year and haven’t let up. Clearly, it’s touched a nerve. Rod Dreher recommends that American Christians plan a strategic withdrawal from American culture. He compares his option to the Benedictine monasteries that were established during the barbarian takeover of the Christianized Roman Empire. Dreher says that just as these monasteries preserved faithful Christianity so it would exist to flourish again at a later time, American Christians need to do the same. American culture has become so toxic that any efforts to regain a position by which we could save it is futile. Our best option, then, is to find ways to preserve faithful Christianity within the new Dark Ages.
My reaction: convicted yet cautious.
His observations about how deeply-compromised American Christianity has become will resonate with biblically-faithful Christians. His advice about forming robust faith is sound, as well as his warnings about the coming negative consequences to vocational ambitions and income among those who try to maintain that robust faith.
Yet I’m cautious about this book. I’m concerned it will accelerate a bunker mentality that’s already prevalent in conservative Christian circles. Congregations can either see themselves as beachheads or bunkers. Beachheads are offensive positions from which to advance into the world; bunkers are defensive positions in which to retreat from the world. Those who want their churches to be bunkers will find comfort in this book. In interviews since the release of the book, Dreher expresses frustration at those who raise this objection to his book. It’s certainly true that throughout his book he insists that the Benedict Option is no call to hide away from the world. But when the futility of effecting any change to our barbarian-dominated culture is as loudly proclaimed as it is in this book, it’s hard to actually hear his few simple caveats that the Benedict Option is not, by the by, about withdrawal.
I think Tom Gilson’s observations about the book are helpful:
I wish he hadn’t kept describing Christians as “exiles in place.” “Exiles” is the wrong word. We’re much more like expatriates. Exiles’ eyes remain turned toward their homelands, where they hope to return as quickly as possible. Often they make it their mission from a distance to accomplish social and political reform back home. We have no such distant home in need of reforming. Our mission is right where we are. Indeed, there’s another word for Christian expatriate: missionary. Missionaries go out on purpose, sent by God to love the people of their new homelands, and to discover how best to live and share the way of Christ in that cultural context. We don’t need to adopt the self-pitying language of exile. Instead we can embrace the joyful privilege of being missionaries in place. It isn’t just a more positive approach—it’s why God has us here. The Benedict Option needs an Expatriate Alternative.