If the marketing team at Penguin Random House had wanted to generate controversy for Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, they would have given it a subtitle like “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation”—and they did. The book’s cover, an image of the fortified abbey atop Mont-Saint-Michel shrouded in mist, doesn’t do much to ward off criticism about adopting a “fortress mentality,” either. While the publishers can congratulate themselves on getting the book the attention it deserves—it has been covered by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the New Yorker, among others—it is a pity that its presentation so easily invites misinterpretation, especially since The Benedict Option is at heart nothing other than a call for the Church to be more fully itself.
Others have already debated at length these headline-grabbing aspects of Dreher’s analysis and prescriptions, so I would like to focus instead on my view of the book as someone who came to it with more practical concerns: namely, from my perspective as a father.
From its very first paragraph, The Benedict Option invites precisely such a reading. “Nothing changes a man’s outlook on life like having to think about the kind of world his children will inherit,” Dreher explains in his introduction. “And so it was with me.” In my own case, becoming a father seven years ago made the importance of having access to a supportive community painfully clear. It also highlighted for me just how rootless and alienated from each other we have truly become. Not exactly shocking revelations, I’ll grant, but the point is that a whole array of concerns that had, until then, interested me in a largely academic sense, suddenly became both personal and urgent when my daughter was born. As I thought about those things that I would like to pass on to her—and later her two younger brothers—my mind turned naturally to goods of the soul. I realized very quickly how daunting a task lay ahead.
Too often, young parents trying to raise the next generation of Christians find themselves fighting what seems like an asymmetric war. I don’t mean only the often corrosive impact of popular culture on virtues that parents may be trying to nurture in their children. I am also thinking of the contours of contemporary life itself: the encroachment of work responsibilities on family life, the incessant busyness and noise caused by our overdependence on technology, the way families and friendships are broken up as we move in search of economic opportunities, the banality and utilitarianism of most of our educational system, the way even the built environments of our cities and suburbs seem to conspire to make the human act of knowing our neighbors seem quaint or even peculiar.
Understandably, having grown up during decades of a feel-good catechesis that promoted, more than anything, what sociologist Christian Smith famously labeled Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, many serious Christians raising children today have focused on doctrine and apologetics as ways of supplying what their own faith formation lacked. Unfortunately, while sound and compelling teaching is always necessary, the cultural trends mentioned above—to name just a few—constitute an implicit education all their own, orienting our lives toward a self-centered idea of fulfillment. One doesn’t need to read The Benedict Option to understand that these socioeconomic trends make it harder to communicate to our children the meaning of Christian charity or nurture in them a love for the true, the good, and the beautiful, which are always harder than the trendy, the flashy, and the luxurious. When our lives become so atomized that the faith cannot be incarnated in a community’s way of life, when our parishes are only franchises where we purchase religious services, Christianity becomes nothing more than a philosophy, losing much of its power to transform our lives. It is no accident that Jesus did not write a book but instead founded a Church.
These are the concerns that led me to read The Benedict Option, looking for a way forward—not to save civilization—but simply to raise my children in the midst of an increasingly secularist society. I have to say Dreher acquits himself well. Ultimately, The Benedict Option makes a simple argument: it takes the Church to raise a Christian (to put a new spin on that old saying). Dreher develops the argument carefully and convincingly, alerting Christians to the urgency of the task and providing a useful framework for how to go about doing it
The “Benedict option” is a term Dreher coined from a famous passage in Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue, where McIntyre argues that moral coherence can only return to our public life when there appear new “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained,” paralleling the way Benedictine monastic communities served as a locus for maintaining the “tradition of virtues” through the Dark Ages. “We are waiting not for a Godot,” McIntyre concludes, “but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” Dreher suggests in his first chapter that this new St. Benedict may in fact be not one but many: everyday Christians coming together to build a common life that isn’t ordered by the standards of what St. Augustine would have called the “city of man.” Dreher offers, as an alternative, a vision of community life inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict, yet adapted to work for lay believers living in modern times rather than monastics in the Middle Ages.
The first part of the book sketches a historical argument—beginning with the Medieval debate between realism and nominalism—that attempts to illuminate “the long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning” to one of “once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection.” While I might quibble with some of the narrative Dreher presents here—for example, when he fails to recognize how historical, theological, and philosophical developments during the Middle Ages contributed to the rise of modern science and democracy—his overall point about our comfortable but “emptied” world stands, as does his call for Christians to stop looking to politics to save the day. Whatever one thinks of this section—whether it may be too defeatist, alarmist, etc., as some have argued—it is not where the real value of the book lies. Rather, what makes The Benedict Option so compelling is Dreher’s exploration of ideas from the Rule of Benedict—and how communities around the world have already put them into practice—that can enrich our spirituality and our church communities, making them “thicker,” more resilient, and more alive. Dreher includes sections covering many areas of life, from prayer, asceticism, and living by the liturgical calendar to education, work, and technology. In each of these, he calls on Christians to have the courage to place the Gospel first, even if that means forgoing opportunities for worldly success, for example by choosing to remain rooted in a community at the cost of a better-paying job in another part of the country. The focus is not—as some accuse him—on naively trying to keep the world out or avoid contamination by the impure, but rather on building micro-cultures conducive to human flourishing in the fullest sense.
The Benedict Option is a compelling call to Christians to stop living on the world’s terms, as well as a guide for how, in the twenty-first century, we can be “in the world but not of it.” It is written with a clear head, alert to the pitfalls that sects and cults fall into as they attempt to cut themselves off from the world. The book provides safeguards against these dangers by championing the Benedictine virtues of “balance” and “hospitality,” as well as through repeated cautions about turning the community, the family—or anything else for that matter—into an idol. Even if you don’t agree with all its prescriptions—the section on economics, which does tend toward isolationism, gave me pause—this is a timely, useful, and important book. It won’t answer every practical question about how to go about building up your local community, but it can give you a model to aim for. In my own parish, it has intensified the conversation about how we may better support each other and share in each other’s lives beyond Sunday mornings, and while we have no concrete answers yet, the conversation itself has already drawn us closer. Whether we call it “the Benedict option” or anything else, the type of community Dreher describes is really a place where we may nurture in our children, and share with the world, the kind of life modernity both hates and hungers for: the life that St. Paul simply called the “more excellent way.”