Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 1—What Dreher gets right

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2017

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by journalist, blogger, and religious thinker Rod Dreher, is a book that has received an unusual amount of buzz. Clearly Dreher both has an excellent ability to garner publicity (fueled by his passionate energy) and an ability to speak to profound concerns shared by many people. [For summaries of the book’s key ideas, see Dreher’s post “The Benedict Option” from 2013, an excerpt published in Christianity Today, an interview with Dreher in Religion & Politics, and a recent lengthy profile in The New Yorker; here’s a link to a list of links to articles critiquing and otherwise relating to the Benedict Option.]

This is my first, a descriptive and largely positive essay, of a four-post series engaging Dreher’s book. Post two will offer a general critique. Post three will focus on Dreher’s concerns about same-sex marriage. And post four will offer what I am calling a “Believers’ church alternative.” I am most interested in engaging Dreher on the level of theological ethics, a focus not shared very many of the multitude of responses The Benedict Option has elicted.

What The Benedict Option is about

The Benedict Option is a fascinating book that addresses important issues—and should be of great interest for all who think carefully about how Christian faith navigates life in 21st century North America. Dreher writes well. See for yourself in the excerpt published in Christianity Today mentioned above and at his amazingly prolific blog.

It is important to keep Dreher’s stated agenda and his intended audience in mind in reflecting on what he has to say. He is writing to and about conservative Christians (politically and theologically—Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Protestants)—so progressives of any kind who read him should expect to feel as if they are overhearing a conversation they have not been invited to join. That is, he is not trying to persuade those who don’t fit into the circle of his intended audience, so there are not apologetics or carefully constructed arguments justifying controversial views. He’s self-consciously preaching to the choir. I don’t mean that as a criticism, just as a descriptive comment about his writing strategy. There is a lot to criticize in the book (see my next couple of posts!), but I don’t think it should be criticized for not spending much time presenting a careful argument to “BenOp” skeptics.  That’s not Dreher’s agenda.

Dreher hopes to inspire a joining together of Christians of like mind in resistance to the downward spiral of American culture heading toward a pit of moral relativism, individualism, and hostility toward “orthodox” Christians. The goal is to inspire a counterculture that will have the ability to sustain “traditional” faith in this world.

Some good points

I appreciate the issues Dreher raises. Certainly, the general question of the way Christians might practice their faith in life-giving ways in a culture that seems all too bent on death should be at the center for all of us. As a Mennonite convert some 35 years I ago, I especially was interested in the Anabaptist “sectarian” approach to faith and politics. I have remained engaged in such issues. Engaging Dreher interests me in part because it helps me to think better about issues I care about.

I see two particularly attractive elements to Dreher’s presentation (along with the book’s readability and straightforwardness). The first is that many of Dreher’s concerns and criticisms of contemporary American culture are perceptive and demand respectful attention. The second is that his sense of the calling Christians have to invest themselves in creative countercultural formation seems right.

At the heart of Dreher’s analysis of the current milieu in America is a sharp critique of our materialism (both as in consumerism and as in the modern scientistic view that the material realm is all there is). He rightly points to the many failures of the Enlightenment project and its corrosive impact on communities. He also rightly challenges the spiritually-empty dynamics of contemporary sexual hedonism and points to problems with our media/wired/technologized society, especially in relation to young people. Our world is impoverished by popular scorn for many of our life-sustaining traditional practices. I wished he had said more about these two themes, but Dreher accurately seems to see capitalism as deeply problematic and complicit in most of these problems, and he is appropriately skeptical of the American empire.

A self-consciously Christian perspective

I appreciate Dreher’s call to approach these concerns from a Christian perspective (albeit with a different sense of what “Christian” means, as we will see in my next post). The challenge to take seriously what it means to think and live as Christians rings strongly in this book. I would like to imagine that his sincerity in issuing this challenge would mean that Dreher would be a person I could constructively converse with, since that sense of just how crucial living Christianly is would be something we have in common.

I believe that Christians should always think in terms of living in countercultural communities and having a countercultural sensibility. Part of what I mean by this statement is a sense of centering life on one’s core theological convictions regardless of the values are propagated in one’s wider society. A countercultural sensibility means that one does not identify closely with one’s nation-state or one’s mass culture, but draws one’s identity and deepest commitments from one’s faith community and tradition.

The biblical tradition from the time of the Exodus emphasizes the call for people of faith to center their lives on God’s teaching, even when that means standing over against the empires and nations of the world. And, of course, Jesus emphasizes this point throughout his ministry. Though Dreher does not spend much time with the biblical story, nonetheless his call for a countercultural emphasis among Christians to some extent links with that story.

Points of contact with the Believers’ Church tradition

I understand my ecclesial location to be in the Believers’ Church tradition. Christians in this tradition have always seen themselves as a countercultural community that lives (and should expect to live) in tension with the wider community. Perhaps the paradigmatic Believers’ Church group has been the Mennonite tradition, characterized by its pacifism, emphasis on adult baptism, and strong communal connections within congregations. The term “Believers’ Church” stems from the conviction that church membership is for believers, not all members of a geographical area—that is, church is for those who are capable of understanding and committing themselves to following Jesus’s way.

I think there could be significant connections between the Benedict Option understanding of faith and the Believers’ Church tradition. Certainly, I think, Dreher could learn from Christian groups who have such a long tradition of being self-conscious minorities in their cultures, a status that has involved many tensions, conflicts, persecutions, and inabilities to influence the wider society.

However, as I read Dreher’s book, I see some major differences between what he envisions and what I might call the “Believers’ Church option.” I will pursue this line of thought in my next several blog posts, starting with the next post on a general critique of The Benedict Option.

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5 thoughts on “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 1—What Dreher gets right

  1. Brother Ted: I appreciate this post. Looking at one very small–and perhaps insignificant–point, I quote you here:
    “The term “Believers’ Church” stems from the conviction that church membership is for believers, not all members of a geographical area—that is, church is for those who are capable of understanding and committing themselves to following Jesus’s way.
    We are on the same wavelength here. However, there is a very significant sub-group of persons who are NOT cognitively “capable of understanding”…Jesus. Generally speaking, from my experience, I think the Roman church accepts these folk especially well; note the example / practice of l’Arche!
    On the other hand, I am aware that some of our Anabaptist congregations are being faithful to Jesus’ vision for the oppressed and that Faith Mennonite Church in Goshen is VERY GOOD at incorporating these folk into their common life. Perhaps there are other examples of which I am unaware.
    A final word about “understanding and committing.” In my 4 – 5 visits to l’Arche, I saw regularly and consistently that the “cognitively impaired” (my term, not theirs) “understand” Jesus! They know and affirm and share love in their midst! And their “commitment” is not unlike “the lilies of the field”: their lives give glory to God.
    Respectfully, in Jesus! Tom Fleming
    (I’m pasting this response into an email to some friends / family with a link to your post.)

    1. Thanks, Tom. You raise a good point, though I find it interesting that on the one hand you write “there is a very significant sub-group of persons who are NOT cognitively ‘capable of understanding’ Jesus” but then later “I saw regularly and consistently that the ‘cognitively impaired’ [do] understand Jesus!”

      Maybe part of the point is that understanding Jesus—for all of us—is not only “cognitive.” The “cognitive impaired” surely regularly do “understand and commit themselves to following Jesus’s way” in the sense that doing so truly matters.

      Indeed, one of the dangers of a certain kind of Believers’ Church approach is to think of following Jesus as having mainly to do with beliefs (as in reaching an “age of accountability” where we can self-consciously accept Jesus as our savior. I do think developing our beliefs is very important, but your example here points to the priority on following in terms of how we live.

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