Theology & The Church

Rod Dreher on Cultural Engagement and The Benedict Option

David Kern

“There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.” So suggests Rod Dreher in his new book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher claims that the West has come to reject the principal tenets of Christianity. In fact, he says, not only has society at large bought into nominalism, come to value individualism above all else, and embraced the ethos of the sexual revolution, even the church has fallen in line with such thinking.

In the face of this tumult, Dreher offers the Benedict Option. Based on the teachings of Benedict of Nursia, a sixth-century monk, Dreher's proposal is a “strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’ and form a vibrant counterculture.”

I spoke with Dreher about the alarmist nature of his call to action, the role parenting plays in the Benedict Option, and what it implies about our engagement with the arts. That conversation follows, edited for clarity and length. 

TC:Early in the book you summarize the journey that Western civilization took from medieval metaphysical realism (which didn’t see the physical world as separate from the spiritual world) to a 20th-century dismissal of the spiritual as hocus pocus. And you refer to our own age as a "new Dark Age," engulfed by the enlightenment's project to replace religion with reason. To many, this will sound like hyperbole intended to push us into hiding. How is the Benedict Option more than that?

Dreher: It is true that I write with alarm, but that's because there is much to be alarmed about. The news is very bad for Christians, though most of us prefer to keep our heads in the sand.

Outside the church, small-o orthodox Christianity is in retreat. Popular culture has swung so swiftly and so surely towards embracing the sexual revolution that those who dissent are treated as bigots and marginalized. This is not going to stop anytime soon. If you talk to law professors and others who keep a close eye on this, they foresee a future in which believers are pushed farther and farther out of the public square, unless they are willing to burn a pinch of incense to the idols of the day.

Within the church, it's a rolling disaster, though one that most of us conceal from ourselves. Social science research in recent years reveals an unprecedented falling away from the church among millennials. Plus, the invaluable work of sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues has revealed that even among those millennials who profess the faith, a staggeringly small number of them know even the fundamentals of Christianity. These aren't bad kids. These are kids who have been failed by their families and their churches.

The Benedict Option, then, is a call for strategic withdrawal from the toxic, post-Christian culture around us, so that we can form ourselves and our children in strong, thick Christian community. It's about deepening our prayer and worship lives, putting down deeper roots in Scripture and in the ancient traditions of Christian culture. This is not for the sake of living in some sort of isolated community, high up in the mountains. If we are going to be for the world who Christ demands that we be, we are going to have to radically change our relationship to that world, because we are being assimilated into it. Go-along to get-along cultural Christianity is no longer enough, if ever it was.

But first, we have to recognize the world as it is, not as we wish it were. This is real. This is alarming. It cannot be ignored, not by Christians who want to hold on to the faith, and who want their children to do so as well.

Having said that, if the Benedict Option were about nothing other than fear, it would fail, and it would deserve to fail. Sobriety is not the same thing as fear. Our happiness and our hope can only be real if it is grounded in realism.

TC:I think that for many Christian readers, especially those of an evangelical bent, there is a fine line between “escaping" the world and understanding how to live in it “as it is." You write in the book that “Benedictine spirituality teaches us to bear with the world in love and to transform it as the Holy Spirit transforms us.” Is it fair to say, then, that the book is not a manual to getting away from the “threat" as much as it is learning to manage it?

Dreher: Yes, exactly! What I'm saying is that to go forward into the world as authentic Christians requires taking a step back from the world in terms of our everyday lives, for the sake of our moral and spiritual formation.

Our faith can't be compartmentalized from everyday life.

Think about the Hebrew exiles in Babylon. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God told them that he had caused them to be taken into exile for his own purposes, and that he would restore them one day after a time. Meanwhile, he commanded them, in Jeremiah 29, to establish themselves among the Babylonians, and to pray for the city. Yet God also told them not to be captivated by Babylonian idolatry. So we have the iconic story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego choosing to go into the fiery furnace rather than bow down to Nebuchadnezzar's idol. How did those faithful men of Israel, living as captives in a strange land, develop a faith strong enough to accept death before apostasy? This is the question before us Christians in post-Christian America. The Benedict Option puts that question in more concrete form, and suggests some answers. We are not facing the fiery furnace yet, anyway,  but the temptations to apostatize through steady compromise with the world are ever-present, and growing stronger.

TC:In the book you mention monitoring our children more, but even the Benedictine monks in Norcia, who you document in the book, believe that “Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise.” What does this mean for engagement with the arts? How do we balance boundaries with openness?

Dreher: I don't think there is an easy way to answer that question. There are too many relative factors to give a simple response.

It requires discernment, which comes with trial and error. What we aim for is not simply telling our kids that they cannot see, read, or listen to bad things, but helping them to learn to love good things. And we don't define goodness as the absence of sex or violence. Reading the Odyssey with my son Matt when he was 12 occasioned some challenging conversations between us, but they were important ones. In Paris, my family and I spent time in the Louvre, where one of the conversations we had with the kids was talking to them, especially in front of The Three Graces statue, about how the nude human body is not something dirty in and of itself, because creation is good. It is the perverted use of creation that makes something dirty or sinful. It's so much easier to say "no" to anything complicated, or to say "yes" to all of it, and hope for the best. But that's not engaged parenting. Our role as Christian parents is to help our children learn how to perceive the good, the true, and the beautiful when they encounter it, because all of those things reflect and point to God.

Father Cassian, the now-retired prior of the Norcia monastery, told me that establishing order in our lives—spiritual and otherwise—is fundamental. All things we do must be ordered by and to Christ. Order is what the Catholic theologian Romano Guardini calls man's efforts "to regain his right relation to the truth of things, to the demands of his own deepest self, and finally to God." Our goal is to bring our lives in harmony with the divine will. We should always ask ourselves if this or that cultural artifact stands to bring us closer to that harmony, or introduces disorder into our hearts and minds. This is not always an easy thing to determine. There is a world of difference between the nude women of the Three Graces statue and pornography. Learning to tell that difference, and to embrace true beauty while refusing its opposite, is the result of moral and aesthetic training and experience.

TC:Governing ourselves, as you put it, takes discipline, which is something you discuss in the book when you describe the asceticism of the Benedictine monks in Norcia. You talk about how adhering to the Benedictine tradition is rigorous, but you argue that it is also freeing, and that it avoids fundamentalism and extremism. You argue, in fact, that it’s a hopeful, harmonious way of life that is centered on Christ. Yet much of the conversation surrounding the Benedict Option seems to be about politics. With that in mind, do you view the Benedict Option in general, and this book specifically, as a spiritual guidebook more than a polemical treatise?

Dreher: Yes, that's right—though I don't want to downplay politics too much. There is a chapter in the book about politics, because contrary to what so many Benedict Option critics like to say, I do not advocate political quietism. We have to stay involved in politics to fight for religious liberty and other causes important to us. If we lose religious liberty, so much of what we do outside the political realm will be shut down.

That said, because I am far more interested in the long-term survival of the church than I am in the long-term survival of the United States, I believe that it is time for serious American Christians to focus most of their attention on building up the church to endure a long Dark Age. This means lots of things, including rediscovering or recommitting ourselves to ancient Christian practices of prayer, contemplation, and fasting, as well as deepening our knowledge of Scripture. It means making our homes into domestic monasteries, into the lay equivalent of "a school for the service of the Lord," as St. Benedict described the monastery. Our churches must become this as well.

It would be a mistake, though, to characterize the Benedict Option as a pietistic manual. There is an unavoidably political aspect to the Benedict Option. We have an impoverished understanding of politics, thinking of it as having to do only with campaigns, elections, and statecraft. Broadly speaking, politics is the means by which people manage their lives together in community. As doors close to us at the state and national levels, we may find all kinds of opportunities at the local level.

In the book, I talk about how we Christians can learn a lot from the Czech dissidents from communism. They tried to form a "parallel polis," so that they could live in truth even under harsh conditions. When they were barred from teaching at universities because they wouldn't assent to Marxist-Leninist dogma, they started holding underground classes, so that the tradition of true knowledge in the Western tradition, and in the Christian tradition, would not be lost during that Dark Age. This is the kind of creativity that small-o orthodox Christians will be called to exercise in the days to come. But we cannot do that well if we have not been engaged in serious spiritual training individually, in our families, in our Christian schools, and in our churches.

TC:In the book you quote the great literary critic Ralph Wood, who argued that the church's task is "not to create a counter-culture, so much as a new culture based on one so ancient and nearly forgotten that it looks freshly minted." What does that mean specifically for each individual contemporary Christian who, like you, wishes to see a healthy American church?

Dreher: People who come to the Benedict Option seeking an action list of 25 things they can do right now to Ben-Op their lives will be disappointed. It's not a program, but an orientation. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it calls for the re-sacramentalization of everyday life. One of the points I make in the book is that our faith can't be compartmentalized from everyday life. If the Benedict Option exists only in our heads, or on the pages of a book, it won't do us any good.

Four years ago, I was in the middle of the worst spiritual crisis of my life. I wrote about it in How Dante Can Save Your Life. I was doing my usual thing, which was to look in books for answers. My priest gave me a demanding prayer rule: 500 Jesus Prayers each day. To say them in the Orthodox fashion meant that I was spending an hour a day in silent contemplation. I hated it, really hated it. What that revealed to me, though, was how scattered my mind was, and how driven I was by my untamed thoughts. After doing these prayers for some time, I noticed a growing inner stillness. That created a beachhead within me that the Holy Spirit used to heal me. After it was all over, I mentioned to my priest how surprised I was that the simple act of contemplative prayer worked so profoundly. He said, "I had to get you out of your head."

Anything we can do to get us out of our heads and into the real world increases our sense of the sacramental.

More prosaically, Christians who take the Benedict Option can start or join a classical Christian school, or take up classical Christian homeschooling. They can start businesses that are likely to be immune to persecution by the state, and build business networks. They can come together within their churches, or across denominational lines, to study the Church fathers, or other great works of the Christian past, or of the Western cultural patrimony.

Pope Benedict XVI said that in the future, as the church becomes smaller and less powerful, Christians would have to become "creative minorities" in the post-Christian world. He's exactly right.

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