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Thoughts on The Benedict Option


 

I would say that Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has some strengths and a number of weaknesses, but one thing I am sure of: it’s great that it’s prompting discussion about Christian cultural engagement! The issues that Dreher brings up – whether or not I agree with how he handles them – are topics at the heart of what we teach in the cultural apologetics classes in the MA in Apologetics at HBU Apologetics – how to diagnose, engage with, transform, and respond appropriately to our modern culture. In my own teaching at HBU, these issues come up most notably, in my Medieval Culture and Philosophy class and my Modern/Postmodern Culture and Philosophy class.

Here are three points where I think the book is strong:

One – I agree completely with his diagnosis of the state of American / broadly Western culture, and I don’t think he’s being alarmist at all. (I have kept my finger on the pulse of culture these last ten years or so, because that’s where my work as an apologist focuses — on diagnosing our culture, engaging with it, and equipping Christians to flourish in it/despite of it.)

Two – I think that critique of the “BenOp” being overly pessimistic is off the mark. My view is that he’s being realistic. Yes, our story ends in hope, but things can get pretty awful en route. The Lord of the Rings ends in the fall of Sauron and the scouring of the Shire, yes, but many men, elves, and dwarves died fighting Sauron’s forces before then, the Party Tree was cut down, and many hobbits are thrown in prison and maltreated, even murdered. We do need to be ready to suffer for our faith, and too often we aren’t. My own spiritual life has been deepened by reflecting on the Oxford Martyrs of the 16th and 17th Century – I pray that I will be spared a test like theirs, but that if it comes, I will respond as faithfully as they did.

Three – I think he is right to see the importance of engagement at the local level, and to highlight the value of individual Christians making counter-cultural choices. Yes, yes, yes.

One in-between point:

I appreciate Dreher’s ecumenical approach. He is trying to speak to Evangelicals as well as Eastern Orthodox and Catholics, and his broader point needs to be heard by all conservative Christians – so, good. Now, this does, in my view, weaken his argument: the sort of community that he describes as a BenOp community is, I think, only fully possible if it has a framework that is not invented by the community itself (e.g., the teachings of the Catholic Church), and will only thrive if sustained by the sacraments (centered on the Eucharist). So in a certain way, the BenOp will only work as advertised for Orthodox and Catholics. The references to the sacraments and liturgy have to be really watered down to apply to our Evangelical brothers and sisters. So, I think the book isn’t as strong as it could be in making its case for Eastern Orthodox and Catholics, but in that sense, it does ensure that Evangelicals are actively invited into the discussion (something that I think Rod has done well, in his choice of interviewees and examples.) So that’s just a trade-off that he had to make, and that Evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox readers are going to find fault with in different ways (necessarily.)

Some points of weakness that I see:

Four – I don’t see an actual “Option” being articulated: that is, a specific way of engagement. Rather, as Leah Libresco Sargeant pointed out in her quote in the book, the BenOp done well is simply the Church being the Church as it should be. Now, I do see the value (as Leah said) of having a name for the Church being the Church in these circumstances (like the New Evangelization). The problem is that the Benedict Option is partly positioned as a specific approach, and partly as a general philosophy – a split which prevents Dreher from really making a strong case for either way of thinking of the BenOp, as I imagine he could do.

Five – If the BenOp is indeed viewed as a specific approach, — the things that Christians should do — the book doesn’t really articulate what that approach is or how it might work. There are some specific suggestions at the end (on raising children and managing technology), but on the whole, the book is very light on details of what a BenOp community would look like. Oddly, in one area Dreher goes into great detail, specifying not only that Christians should send their children to classical Christian schools, but even outlining the exact pedagogical approach within classical Christian schooling (and I think it’s a weakness that he seems to dismiss any other pedagogical paths to the same goal). The specificity in this one area highlights the vagueness in the other areas.

This vagueness would not be a problem if the book is primarily philosophical, but Rod makes enough references to implementing the BenOp that it sounds like he sees it as an actual, specific approach. I wish he had discussed his example communities in a lot more detail. Overviews are useful, yes, but I think we needed more detail for his overall case to be convincing.

Six – The regular reference to the Benedictines as a model is problematic. The Rule of St Benedict was, and is, a guideline for a certain self-selected group of people in a specific vocation (religious life). It is not, and never was, intended as a guideline for Christians as a whole on how to live or engage with culture. If Dreher wanted to draw on certain Benedictine principles (like hospitality), great, and at times he does that – but then at other times, he seems to be viewing Benedictine religious life as a genuine practical model — but without developing that line of argument enough to make it work.

Seven – Following up on 3, there’s also, I think, a problem with picking the Benedictines up as a model, out of the context of the Catholic Church as a whole. I understand that Rod is writing ecumenically, and (as he is not Catholic) does not want to argue for Catholicism, quite understandably, but taking just one monastic order as a model distorts the picture, I think. The Benedictines have a distinctive spirituality to offer the Church, but so do other orders – all of which help to correct imbalances in how the Church engages with the world. Why not have a Dominic Option, in which we train up Christians to go preach the gospel? or a Jesuit Option, in which we focus on building a great educational system? or a Francis of Assisi Option, where we allow the Franciscans to correct our unhealthy consumer culture, or an Oratorian Option, where we focus on developing sanctity? Etc., etc. etc. Now, one could very reasonably say that The Benedict Option is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of how the Catholic religious life can be a model for modern engagement — but Rod puts just enough recurring emphasis on the Benedictines to make it feel weird, without enough emphasis to show how it makes sense.

Now, if we consider the Benedict Option as a philosophy, rather than a practical option, these earlier objections are less problematic. However, then new problems come up. For a book that makes such a strong (and in my view, well-justified) claim for the value of tradition and learning from the past, it is strange that Rod doesn’t engage much with other lines of thought that seem directly connected to his approach. For instance, in the section on sexual ethics, he does not mention John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, even though the points that JPII makes there are, I would think, useful support for Rod’s overall argument.

Medieval Christian culture – beyond the Rule of St Benedict! – offers a great deal for us to learn from; indeed, the question of “What can we learn from medieval Christians that will help us today?” is a guiding question for my Medieval Culture and Philosophy class. But to get useful answers to that question, we need to look at more than just one document.

Even more seriously, Dreher never interacts at all with the one major Christian movement that lines up with the BenOp in so many ways — Distributism. It is mentioned once in the text, but only in passing, and is not even included in the index. This seems beyond bizarre. I have done a modest but sustained amount of reading on Distributism (reading not just Chesterton, but also Belloc and other authors), and it seems to me that The Benedict Option would have been enormously strengthened by a serious interaction with the ideals and experiences of Distributists. For one thing, their analysis of the problems of the Industrial Revolution (which Dreher mentions as one of the causes of ‘liquid modernity’) is, in my view, much more thought-out than Dreher’s, at least as he presents it in the book. Furthermore, Distributism has not had the success that it could have had (and that in my view, it should have had), but it is still very much a live option. Analyzing why it has not taken hold as its earliest proponents hoped, applying those insights to the BenOp, and engaging with their ideas would have strengthened his argument considerably. So I’m puzzled and a bit disappointed on this regard.

Perhaps my most serious criticism… the Benedict Option as presented here doesn’t really make any case for literature and the arts – either as ways to change the culture, or as ways to disciple and strengthen Christians as they do the BenOp. To be fair, Dreher does bring in an example of the value of evangelizing through witness, and an allusion to his own conversion, which was set in motion by experiencing the beauty of a cathedral, but this is only a very brief section of the book. Considering that he was profoundly influenced in a positive way by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and indeed wrote a book on it (How Dante Can Save Your Life), the problem is not that Dreher himself devalues imaginative engagement, it’s that he doesn’t articulate a place for it in the Benedict Option. This, in my view, is an absolutely glaring omission, and it perpetuates the split between reason and imagination that is (in my view) one of the most serious problems in modern culture.

I do not think that any Benedict Option can have any sustained results if it does not engage the imagination as well as the intellect; if it is not a fully integrated approach. tweet

The reason that this comes so strongly to mind is that I have just finished a book of my own that addresses this very point – the need for imagination as well as reason as we do apologetics, evangelism, and discipleship. If we cannot make Christian ideas meaningful, and if we cannot help people to see their beauty as well as understand their truth, then we have no hope of transforming even our own communities, much less the wider culture. (My book is called Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, and it will be coming out at the end of May from Emmaus Road Publishers, for those who are interested.)

Literature and the arts is important in any attempt to engage with the culture or to develop a thriving Christian culture — whether or not it takes a BenOp form. But leaving it pretty much out of The Benedict Option is particularly problematic, because it renders the book vulnerable to the charge that it is purely negative and critical. I don’t think that’s the case – I think there is a great deal of constructive, positive ideas in The Benedict Option, albeit (I think) not in a coherent structure; but I think that the lack of discussion of the arts as a way of creating culture does give the book a slightly negative flavor.

Despite these issues, is The Benedict Option worth reading and discussing? Yes. 

If we take the big picture – yes, it is possible to live this way – and we need to be conscious and deliberate about it. tweet

In some ways, I think I would be considered someone who is living the “BenOp”: I recently moved to La Crosse, WI, where I specifically bought a house within walking distance of the Cathedral, so that I can walk to daily Mass and do local shopping; I signed up for a CSA with a local farm to help support local agriculture. Also, teaching in HBU’s MA in Apologetics is equipping people to live and to interact with culture in ways that are right in line with the BenOp. I even recently had my students do a Media Fast and to spend time in silence, to assess their own relationship with media. These things are all ways to move forward in big-picture BenOp ways.

If the book serves to get people thinking about these things, this is all to the good.



 

It is my great joy to introduce Dr. Holly Ordway to Cultivating readers. She is a superb scholar, extraordinarily well-read and possesses a rare understanding of integrated reason and imagination. Holly also writes some the best books reviews in the business!  It is our pure delight to have her come on board for The Cultivating Project.

Many blessings to you, friends! 


 

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