In this speech, the author of The Awakening of Miss Prim says that only a minority of readers see her story as one of a spiritual journey and conversion. I was shocked when I read that. It seemed so obvious to me that that was the only thing it could really be about. In talking with many readers who didn’t like Miss Prim, I have come to realize that most who dislike it didn’t see, relate to, or appreciate the spiritual awakening of Prudencia. (Our review of The Awakening of Miss Prim can be found here.)
As I am writing this, news of the Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacist rally is trickling in. I finished reading Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option a few weeks ago and have struggled to discern how to review this powerful but woefully misunderstood book. Watching the tragic current events of Virgina unfold, however, I realize anew how important the true message of The Benedict Option (and The Awakening of Miss Prim) is to our culture. I say “true message” because everywhere I turn, I read or hear of another critic or commentator who says that Dreher’s book has a “head for the hills” or “withdrawal” call to action. As in the case of Miss Prim, I am continually shocked by how many readers seem to have approached Dreher’s book with the wrong expectations and then write frustrated reviews.
This morning after church, my husband and I listened to an excellent CiRCE Institute podcast interview between Dr. Brian Phillips and Dr. Craig Bernthal. In that interview, Dr. Bernthal explained how Tolkien clung fast to a medieval mindset when modernity raged around him. They unpacked why so many modern academics and critics have and continue to reject The Lord of the Rings as serious literature. I took away from that conversation the sense that when we approach books like Miss Prim, The Benedict Option, and The Lord of the Rings, we must first put ourselves in the posture of stepping outside of our modern (post-Enlightenment) prejudices just enough that we can let in the supernatural light.
Nearly all of the reviews (positive and negative) of The Benedict Option that I have read boil the book down to one or two misunderstandings: either Dreher is telling us to withdraw from real life and build closed communities of resistance, or Dreher doesn’t go far enough in his alleged efforts to tell us how to stop the decline of America. I don’t think either of these ideas is actually present in The Benedict Option. I think what he is saying is substantially different than both of those notions.
Earlier this month Andrew Kern blogged about the secularization of our culture and the subtitle of The Benedict Option – “A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” If I read his article correctly, Kern is contesting the use of “a strategy” in the subtitle because it implies one (singular) strategy for Christians in these secular times. If I read Kern correctly, he reads Dreher’s articles regularly and believes that what Dreher means by The Benedict Option is in fact quite different from what seems to come through in Dreher’s book. I want to quibble with Mr. Kern.
“I think that is why it bothers me. I don’t know how he intends the word strategy to be used, but in response to the way I understand it, I consider it a silly idea. There is no “strategy for Christians” because there is no army to direct, nor is there a business or any other enterprise. I don’t believe that is even how God works. Not on a wide cultural scale. Many little platoons, many businesses, many volunteer organizations: yes. But not one strategy for all of us.
“You must serve the Lord as He calls you to serve Him where you are. He, by His Spirit, will lead us as far as we are willing to follow. But if anything ‘saves’ this country, it won’t be accomplished by a strategy that fits in a book. It will be by the greater wisdom of God, who sees things we can’t see, who has, on His authority, declared Jesus Lord and Christ, and who will save the world in ways we cannot imagine, much less strategize.
“So, if you are called to a Benedict Option, follow it. If you are called to some other option, follow that. Don’t try to save the world or make a difference. God does that, through us, if we offer ourselves to Him.” – Andrew Kern, “Living Risen in a Dead World“
I love what Kern has said here, but I disagree that there isn’t one strategy that all Christians should follow. Unlike other reviewers of Dreher’s book, I do not think that Dreher is giving us a material strategy that should be followed by all. Rather, I think that Dreher is calling us to submit to the ultimate spiritual strategy that Christ laid out in John 14.
The Benedict Option, I think, is about the following:
- Understanding that we no longer live in a Christian nation; we live in a culture of moral relativism and secular ideology.
- Realizing that the harvest is plenty and the laborers are few, Matthew 9:35-38
- Embracing all of John 14: that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and that when we believe in Him, we will keep his commandments, we will not live in fear, we will do great works in His name, that the Spirit will reside with us, and we will rejoice that Christ has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us.
I think that what Dreher exposes rather well in this insightful thesis is that this age is not fundamentally different from any other age. Since Eden, mankind has persisted in his rebellion against God. One reason this book is so uncomfortable and so necessary, however, is because of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Most Americans I know acknowledge that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that for most of our history our social culture reflected Christian moral standards and Christian prejudices. Today, however, in the wake of rising secularism, in the fallout from the sexual revolution, and in acquiescence to the tolerance agenda, we have turned our backs on our Christian heritage. We have ceased to be a Christian nation. Instead, we are a nation that allows Christians some rights while our culture works furiously to supplant God’s authority on as many moral decisions as it can.
Many think that Dreher is calling for something new or writing a handbook on survival. I don’t read that in The Benedict Option at all. Rather, I think that he is arguing that if we believe what we say the Gospel means, we must live radically in obedience to God’s will. Gospel living demands that we shake off our comfortable blinders and submit to the way of the cross. The only “new” thing Dreher might be saying is that the days of Christian freedom are coming to an end.
Some think that Dreher is advocating retreat. That we would be wise to leave our homes and jobs and return to a quiet farm existence. Not only does he not say this, he refutes it in the book. He argues that the agrarian way is not sustainable for very many farmers and that we should not be lining up to try to make it so for ourselves. He is not calling for withdrawal or retreat. Instead, he is calling for conversion, renewal of Christian fellowship, revitalization of Christian organizations, and support of Christian schools. Because we know that florists and bakers are likely just the first of many to suffer the economic and social embargoes that our secular culture will impose on anyone who dares to disagree with the “tolerance” agenda, Dreher encourages us to build up our relationships with other Christians so that we can support each other in the days ahead.
“The power of popular culture is so overwhelming that faithful orthodox Christians often feel the need to retreat behind defensive lines. But Brother Ignatius, at age fifty-one, warned that Christians must not become so anxious and fearful that they cease to share the Good News, in word and deed, with a world held captive by hatred and darkness.” – The Benedict Option, p. 73
Many years ago I read Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. While there are bits about those books that prevent me from recommending them, there are some things which planted seeds of a vision in my heart. In those books, villagers built their market in the shadow of the monastery and cathedral. Constantly under threat of attack from barbarians and evil overlords, the villagers found it safest to gather en masse around the center of their existence: their house of worship. In doing so, they formed a community which would afford them protection during times of uncertainty. They still lived and worked in their own homes, but their spiritual, economic, and political life centered around the monastery. As they labored together, the community center was constantly pushing outward, reaching new people, and spreading like lava.
“‘The best defense is offense. You defend by attacking,’ Brother Ignatius said. ‘… Let’s attack by expanding God’s kingdom – first in our hearts, then in our own families, and then in the world. Yes you have to have borders, but our duty is not to let the borders stay there. We have to push outward, infinitely.’” – The Benedict Option, p. 73
My social media newsfeed is full of Christians disagreeing over what the real issue in Virginia is. I think Dreher’s book is necessary because our national response to what happened in Charlottesville is terribly misguided and reveals how lost we have become. I think that Dreher’s book reminds us that the “world held captive by hatred and darkness” is in need of missionaries who are expanding God’s kingdom.
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – Message from John Adams to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, October 11, 1798
In the wake of Charlottesville, many are calling for the expulsion of white supremacists from our nation. I think all Christians must agree that white supremacist and neo-Nazi beliefs are anathema to the Christian creed. They are anti-American, they are unbiblical, and they are toxic to any free people. That said, to be an American is to have the right to hold any ridiculous opinion you want so long as it does not produce violence or the diminishment of basic human rights for others. While these Nietzschean Supermen believe hateful and vile things, they have a constitutionally protected right to do so. More importantly, a growing secular minority is overtaking the silent Christian majority on issues of moral orientation. As such, the secular progressives find much of our Christian expression to be just as hateful and vile as that of the neo-nazis. If we, the Christians, violate the constitutionally protected rights of those with whom we passionately disagree, we are setting a precedent that it is okay to remove the constitutionally protected rights of anyone who is unpopular. And, maybe not quite yet, but soon, the unpopular will be the Christians.
In his Real Life Catholic t.v. series on EWTN, Chris Stefanick interviewed Archbishop Chaput (author of Strangers in a Strange Land) in the episode entitled, Freedom in Philadelphia, where they discussed the need for freedom of religion. Stefanick said:
“Freedom of religion isn’t just the freedom to practice your faith behind the walls of your church so long as you leave it there; that would be called ‘freedom of worship.’ Freedom of religion is a lot more than that. It is the freedom to let your deepest convictions about who God is, who you are, and what life is all about inform everything you do. It is the freedom to practice your religion.” – Chris Stefanick, Freedom in Philadelphia
Dreher’s book understands that Charlottesville is just a harbinger of what is to come. Because our nation has lost its moral compass of Christian virtue, Dreher reminds us that we should be doing more than just trying to find ways to preserve Christianity in America. We should be living in obvious defiance of secularism. In fact, we should be living in ways that radically seek to evangelize the white supremacists and any other of the immortal souls who are spiritually impoverished. And the best way to do that is to live the Gospel in ways that reveal that Christ is King over every aspect of our lives. We have to rediscover the joy of the Good News, and Dreher is calling us to build and strengthen Christian communities, networks, and organizations that testify to the goodness of our Lord. Not as a withdrawal from the world, but as a city on a hill, a light shining in the darkness.
Because every one of us has an immortal soul, because every one of us is made in the image and likeness of God, because every one of us is in need of conversion, we need to find other Christians with whom we can co-labor in the vineyard. Because, to quote Andrew Kern, we aren’t supposed, “to try to save the world or make a difference. God does that, through us, if we offer ourselves to Him.”
I think The Benedict Option can best be understood in the words of G. K. Chesterton: “Break the conventions. Keep the commandments.”
And, just for fun because we love G. K. C., if The Benedict Option leaves you feeling a bit unsettled, maybe you would like to consider The Chesterton Option by Chesterton scholar Dale Ahlquist. I tend to like anything that encourages me to read more Chesterton.