Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 2—A general critique

Ted Grimsrud

I believe that Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, identifies some genuine problems in American society and proposes a response that in some important ways resonates with biblical faith (see my affirmative first post in this series).  However, that he is partly right actually makes the problems with his proposal more troubling.

The problem: Not enough love

In a nutshell, I would say that the “Benedict Option” ultimately hurts the cause of Christian faith because it does not take Jesus seriously enough. The very core of Jesus’s message points to the path of love—for God, for neighbor, for enemy, for self, and for the rest of creation. Dreher has very little to say in this book about Jesus or about love. It’s fine that this book is about our present day and not a biblical or theological treatise. At the same time, I find it significant that when making his case for what matters most for Christians navigating life “in a post-Christian nation,” Dreher barely references Jesus and the biblical story at all.

It is telling that the one clear call to the path of love does not come until near the end of the book. In the book’s conclusion, Dreher quotes Pastor Greg Thompson, a Presbyterian minister: The Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love. “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine” (page 237).

Thompson’s call surely is sincere, and it surely reflects Dreher’s own convictions. However, in the structure of the book, the call to love is clearly on the periphery. Dreher never finds the space to reflect on the meaning of love or to bring Jesus’s life and teaching into the picture. There are other reasons to perceive that love is not the driving force in this project. As I will discuss at more length in my next post, Dreher’s way of focusing on the “problem” of same-sex marriage reflects that marginalization of love.

Ironically, Dreher seems to miss one of the key points in the book that provided him with the image of St. Benedict as standing at the core of his project. In his book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre seeks to recover the Aristotelian emphasis on the virtues as what is needed to overcome the moral disarray of modern Western culture. But he points out key difference between Aristotle and later Christian appropriation of virtue ethics. Aristotle did not include love (or, an older term, “charity”) as a key virtue. In Aristotle’s moral universe, an emphasis on love is inconceivable. Whereas, for biblical Christianity, “charity is not … just one more virtue to be added to the list. Its inclusion alters the conception of the good for [humankind] in a radical way” (page 174).

As I suggested, I’m sure that Dreher would agree that love is central to what Christianity is about. But that belief does not appear to have an operative role in his argument. That is, his overall tone and many of his criticisms do not reflect a loving spirit and Jesus does not seem to have a noticeably formative role in his moral framework.

The church/world duality

Another way to get at this problem is to note that for Dreher, the church/world separation seems to be a kind of ontological separation. In the biblical and Believers’ Church traditions (at their best), the sense of separation is more strategic than ontological. The separation happens so the faith community might be better able to carry out its vocation to “bless all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3, see my book God’s Healing Strategy for an introduction to a way of reading the Bible that places this sense of vocation at the center). The biblical hope, borne out of love, is that through establishing a healthy counterculture that separates from the wider world in order to know God’s love might then be enabled to share that love with the world. In contrast, Dreher’s attitude toward his “post-Christian nation” seems more to one of repulsion.

That is, for Dreher, it would appear that the quest by Christian communities for purity has more to do with avoiding contamination from the world than with being an agent that contributes to healing the world’s “contamination.” This is a tension over the meaning of holiness that is actually embedded in the Bible itself, but which Jesus decisively resolves with his entering into life in a contaminated world as an agent of love and healing. Jesus’s response to “impurity,” especially on the part of vulnerable people (women, poor people, etc.), was compassion and an initiative to bring healing and transformation—not disgust and condemnation.

What is “orthodox Christianity”?

It’s not clear to me what Dreher precisely means by his use of the term “orthodox Christian.” Though he now identifies as part of the Eastern Orthodox communion (he grew up nominally Methodist and converted to Catholicism as a young adult before making the move to Orthodoxy), he makes it clear that his sense of “orthodox” also includes Catholics and Protestants. But he doesn’t explain precisely what makes “orthodox” orthodox. This is a problem because though he presents Christianity as his core concern, he seemingly considers quite a few Christians outside the circle of “orthodoxy” (such as progressives and liberals).

I tend to think of the term orthodoxy implying a theological core, some sort of stated doctrinal framework that allows the orthodox to differentiate those who belong from those who don’t. Again, even though Dreher is not writing a theological treatise nor a work of apologetics that tries to persuade those on the outside the truthfulness of his position, it is problematic when he uses “orthodox Christian” (and, often, simply “Christian”) in a boundary-marker enforcing kind of way without giving a clear sense of what he means. The main effect of this kind of dynamic is simply fostering a sense of antipathy that seems quite contrary to the biblical dynamics of love.

History as a trajectory

I think Dreher rightly critiques the Enlightenment/modernity sense of inevitable progress as a kind of secular idol. However, it strikes me that he still wants to see history as a trajectory. Only, for Dreher, it is a descent trajectory. History does have a direction for him, a downward regression.

This assumption about inevitability of things always getting worse in relation to the wider culture seems fatalistic. It also seems to underwrite a sense of alienation and even hostility that may well lead to self-fulfilling prophecies—such as his expectation that “orthodox Christians” are only going to be persecuted more and more. As a consequence, he misses counter-evidence that maybe some things are actually getting better. And it may be possible that some of what he sees as evidence of descent may actually be reflecting society becoming more loving and respectful (see the next post for a discussion of Dreher’s strong opposition to same-sex marriage).

Probably more significantly, Dreher’s emphasis on history as trajectory (either in critique modernity’s optimism about this trajectory or in affirming the sense of a downward trajectory) is the kind of thing that can distract a person from the biblical emphasis on living in the present. One example in the Bible, from an often misunderstood text, is the picture in the book of Revelation where readers are called to follow the Lamb wherever he goes in the present, to participate in moments of worship, and not to worry about the direction history seems to be going. And, contrary to many readings of Revelation, the book actually suggests that these lives of faithfulness to the Lamb make a significant contribution to the healing of the nations (which are, prior to Revelation 21–22, portrayed as the paradigmatic human enemies of God).

Part of the reason for Dreher’s descent narrative is that he valorizes what he calls “our Western cultural heritage” (page 153). And he sees the descent being movement away from the heritage. A Believers’ Church angle on the history of Christianity would question whether the Christian dominance of Western civilization was a case of Christian faithfulness. There is a tension between the way of Jesus that emphasizes love of neighbor (which includes the enemy) and compassion for the vulnerable and the dynamics of Christendom with its tolerance for slavery, imperialism, patriarchy, and economic exploitation.

It seems as if part of Dreher’s animus in this book links with his feeling traumatized with the loss of Christian cultural hegemony. I believe it is true that there are many dynamics in our current North American culture that are hostile to the way of Jesus—and those dynamics are deeply problematic. However, such dynamics have been present throughout history. That does not mean that they should not be resisted (I agree with Dreher about the strategy of working at countercultural resistance). However, the problem is not the loss of a formerly more authentically Christian culture, with the implication (not discussed by Dreher but lurking in the background) that should the opportunity arise to regain cultural dominance after weathering the current storm with the help of the Benedict Option, Dreher would be delighted.

The biblical perspective, though, allows for a more permanent sense of acceptance of existing with a minority status. When the ancient Hebrew kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonians, a vision for an embrace of exile emerged—a vision reiterated by Jesus’s message of a kingdom that stands over against the empires of the world rather than seeking to dominate them and transform them into a “Christian culture.”

The dynamics of “persecution”

One gets the sense that part of the sense of offense that Dreher conveys follows from his longing for a return to Christian cultural hegemony. But the current reality, as he perceives it bitterly, is not simply that Christians are not in charge, but that the wider culture actively shows hostility toward “orthodox Christians.”

On the one hand, I honestly found Dreher’s claims about the profound level of persecution being faced by “Christians” to be surprising. He has an awareness of active targeting of “Christians” that I don’t share. It’s not clear to me that the negative reactions that, say, those who oppose same-sex marriage face is best seen as Christian persecution. It seems more to be a reaction to perceived discrimination than to Christianity. And from reading this book, one would get the sense that active hostility toward LGBTQ people is a thing of the past (a hostility that Dreher professes to regret). It’s hard to see evidence of Dreher’s portrayal in the actual world we live in, what with the still all too high suicide rate among LGBTQ teens, for example.

On the other hand, let’s grant for the sake of making a point, that Dreher does accurately reflect reality when he writes of persecution toward Christians due to their remaining committed to their strong convictions about the ungodliness of same-sex marriage. Isn’t the biblical call one to “take up your cross and follow me”? Isn’t the picture in the Book of Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament one of “rejoicing in your persecutions”? Dreher seems to find it deeply offensive that Christians would be persecuted. Again, he would perhaps benefit from learning from the Believers’ Church tradition with its long history of facing persecution with a renewed conviction to love their neighbors—even when the neighbors are hostile toward them.

Is religious liberty in jeopardy?

One of the elements of Dreher’s argument that was new to me was his claim that “religious liberty” is at risk in the United States like never before. It appears to me that he redefines religious liberty. I have understood religious liberty mainly to be about the right to practice one’s religion (or not to practice any religion) without restriction from the state. The Believers’ Church tradition has often sought the freedom from state churches or coercive acts by the state such as conscription to military service or being compelled to pledge allegiance to the nation’s flag. That is, religious liberty has mainly to do with the freedom for minority faith communities to practice their religious convictions. This sense of liberty still seems intact in the United States.

Though Dreher does not explicitly describe what he means by religious liberty, he seems to have in mind the “rights” of Christians (who still make up the large majority of the American population) to discriminate against people (mainly LGBTQ people) who they believe are acting in ways that go against Christian truth.

That is, the locus of concern changes from being the freedom for me and my community to worship as minority religious groups to the freedom for me or other Christians to discriminate in the public square against, say, LGBTQ people. In practice, this is a claim for a kind of liberty that actually justifies “orthodox Christians” taking away liberties from others based on their identities as sexual minorities. It has changed from being a largely defensive dynamic of protecting the rights of minorities to being a more assertive dynamic of reducing the rights of minorities.

I find it difficult to believe that a large number of “orthodox Christians” are under threat of severe coercion by the state. Dreher seems to assume that such a threat is quite real, but he does not provide much evidence to support that assumption. On the other hand, it does appear that the invocation of “religious liberty” has proven in some contexts at least to be an effective strategy for resisting the expansion of civil rights for vulnerable sexual minorities.

Now, it is certainly the case that many present-day Christians who are part of Believers’ Church communities do not affirm same-sex marriage or other ways that LGBTQ people have gained acceptance in our society. However, it would seem to be hypocritical for such Christians to invoke their own “religious liberty” as a basis for limiting the liberty of others. I suspect that Dreher and others who approach “religious liberty” the way they do don’t actually have much memory (in their families or religious communities) of being persecuted minorities. If they did, one would hope that they would be much more cautious about how they try to use that motif.

As I read Dreher’s invoking of “religious liberty,” I again tend to see a marginalizing of love. I suspect that the issue is not so much a new concern about religious liberty in general as an important value. More so, I have the impression that the “religious liberty” emphasis actually masks an attempt to hold on to an animus toward people in same-sex intimate relationships (I’m not alone in thinking this).

I agree with Dreher that churches’ response to LGBTQ people is at the heart of the gospel. I think this, though, not because I agree with Dreher’s claim that “sexuality is so foundational to Christian anthropology” but because I believe that love is so foundational to the very meaning of the gospel. And I think that Dreher’s antipathy in the name of Christian faith actually undermines the gospel.  I will reflect more on these concerns in my next post.

16 thoughts on “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 2—A general critique

  1. Ted, your post illustrates well the pivotal difference between the traditional and progressive understandings of the commandment to love. For traditionalists (Dreher would say “the orthodox”), love is manifest via the faithful application of the wisdom of Scripture and “the way” as the disciples of Jesus have lived it through the centuries. Traditionalists would go on to say that love also is manifest existentially in “a loving spirit” (as you put it). But in contrast to progressives, traditionalists would never rationalize the setting aside of Scripture’s wisdom by boasting of “a loving spirit,” (something progressives are prone to do)..

    This difference is dividing Mennonite Church USA, so it is worthwhile to highlight it.

    Yes, Dreher is a strenuous critic of the single-dimension view of love progressives espouse. And he makes little effort to persuade progressives of his “loving spirit.” So those eager to discount his argument will be tempted to say, “Here is an unloving guy.” But that would be a big mistake, IMO.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Berry.

      Two quick responses:

      (1) My critique of Dreher is that the actual life and teaching of Jesus play no noticeable role in his argument. I understand “love” as a kind of shorthand for that life and teaching.

      (2) Since Dreher doesn’t talk about love or Jesus in his book in any but a cursory sense, I don’t see any basis for saying that he says that “love is manifest…” in any way at all.

      And a bonus response: If you are suggesting that I am “rationalizing the setting aside of Scripture’s wisdom by boasting of ‘a loving spirit’,” then I would question your ability to comprehend what you read.

      1. Nope, Ted, I am not suggesting that about you. And yes, I am suggesting that about some progressives.

        Dreher is not a progressive, does not talk like a Mennonite and because of his vigorous critique of Moralistic Therapuetic Deism will not reassure us with the phrases we prefer. Yet as I read him, he believes that in Christ we have been given a way of life that reflects the love of God. This “way” includes the sacraments, a worldview, clear social teaching, the virtues, a life of self-denial and spiritual transformation, a counter-culture lifestyle, the situational ethic of love and much more. All of it is the love of God and all of it prepares us to participate in God’s shalom.

      2. Berry, I truly don’t buy your generous reading of Dreher, but I respect the attempt. My big concern, though, is that his notion of “Christian culture” should be an anathema to an anti-empire person such as yourself.

    2. Berry, leave aside your predictable approach to Ted’s predictability (as you perceive it) for a moment; in fact, leave aside the sexual minority part of the argument altogether, and compare Dreher to Stuart Murray (Naked Anabaptist), for example. My reading would be that Murray’s post-Christendom approach would fit within Ted’s framework in regards to religious liberty, persecution, Christendom, etc., and would disagree with (or at least wouldn’t consider as Anabaptist) Dreher’s Benedict Option. Is Jesus our model for love or not? Was that love shown to the marginalized or not? Does Dreher talk about Jesus in the BenOp or not? I don’t know, as I haven’t read it, but I can say that I don’t recall Dreher ever referring to Jesus – or following Jesus – in any of his TAC posts. So to me, Ted’s critique rings true.

      1. Dave, how often do you read Dreher? I ask because I find him complicated and full of contradictions, but in his better moments turning away from the right-wing political project and focused instead on Christian spiritual formation and the building of alternative, flesh-and-blood communities of virtue and compassion. You can read my review here: http://www.bible-and-empire.net/2017/03/the-benedict-option.html Yes, parts of Ted’s critique ring true and yes, Dreher is starting from a very different place than Stuart Murray, but isn’t the direction Dreher is moving interesting?

  2. Very good critique, Ted. I’ve not read his book yet, but I’ve read enough of Dreher’s blog posts — and his Crunchy Con manifesto — to affirm that your description feels quite right. Especially the pro-Christendom/faux-persecution/faux-religious liberty arguments he (and his supporters) make. I like some of what he espouses, especially where it seems to fit the “build the new in the shell of the old” kind of approach that I connect with Anabaptism. But his obsession with standing up for the poor persecuted U.S. “Christians” who can’t possibly live out their beliefs when others get to live so flagrantly differently just rankles. Especially when freedom to live in the way one chooses is supposedly a conservative American value, or so I thought. The level of paranoia on TAC’s message boards about the coming Christian apocalypse in this country is just astounding. It’s akin to the NRA’s “Obama’s gonna take all your guns away” hysteria.

  3. “Dreher’s notion of ‘Christian culture’ should be an anathema to an anti-empire person such as yourself.”

    It should? I hope you say more about this, Ted. I think “culture” is workable placeholder for “kingdom of God.” In the final chapter of our book, Stoner and I write about “an alternative political community” whose method and approach differs significantly from the top-down power of the state. And we say, “As people are drawn to its wisdom, this community becomes a subculture, one that ‘lives faithfully by the permanent things’” (quoting Dreher’s Crunchy Cons).

    I see and appreciate your reference to the biblical vision of exile, but to that we will need to add 3rd Isaiah’s “nations shall come to your light, kings to the brightness of your dawn.” And Amos’ “justice rolling down as waters” and Jesus’ use of images to envision the kingdom of God (yeast leavening the whole loaf, seed that produces a hundredfold, mustard seed growing into the greatest of shrubs), and his teaching about “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

    To get a grip on Dreher’s apocalyptic expectations for orthodox Christians living in the USA, read David Gushee’s essay on the disappearing middle ground (http://religionnews.com/2016/08/22/on-lgbt-equality-middle-ground-is-disappearing/).

    1. Just a quick comment as I will be away from the internet for several days. What I had in mind is that Dreher’s notion of “Christian culture” is a version of Christendom with Christian hegemony, it seems to me. I suggest that he could learn from the Believers’ Church tradition of being a creative minority.

      Another image is the New Jerusalem where the nations and even the kings of the earth find healing. But it is, in part, because the followers of the Lamb retained their faithfulness to his way of persevering love. I guess we disagree, Berry, on the place of love in Dreher’s vision, but I think Revelation holds together the creative minority with the healing of the nations.

  4. About religious liberty: it should be evident that this implies no one to be forced to act against their conscience.
    Conscience tells us how to discriminate between sinful and innocent acts. So it tells us to discriminate between: How far can I support a person without becoming part of his/her sinful acts? And how far have I to abstain from supporting this person?
    This is the obvious problem with war, soldiers and armament (workers/dealers). It’s quite the same kind of problem with sexuality, people who commit sexual acts and s-s-m.
    Antidiscrimination law started from the beginning as a way to annihilate and suppress personal liberties, convictions and consciences. Libertarians have said so for a long time, even if the churches haven’t heard it. And it’s a logical consequence of these antidiscrimination laws when nowadays people are persecuted because they don’t want to take part in the sins of the state of Israel against the Palestinians. And do you really believe that progressive people, who don’t respect personal conscience w.r.t. s-s-m or w.r.t. Israel, will respect personal conscience if one of their holy wars is at stake? Why ever should they?

  5. May I be even more outspoken? Dave Hockman-Wert and Ted Grimsrud come over as egotists who want that only their own conscience be protected by the Constitution, but no different conscience. But this won’t work: Either we have a general agreement in which everyone protects each other’s conscience – or we will have freedom of conscience only for the ruling classes (are you so certain that you will belong to the ruling classes?).

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