A closer look at ‘The Benedict Option’ yields suggestions worth considering

Author Rod Dreher. Screenshot from Vimeo

(RNS) Last week I wrote about the imperative to keep the culture war’s losers engaged in public life.

The issue has renewed salience because Rod Dreher wrote a best-selling book about how traditionalist Christians should respond to their loss of cultural influence.

I used Dreher’s book as a jumping-off point for my argument that government, media, business and the arts should be hospitable to the untold millions who will continue to hold traditional beliefs about sex and God.

And while Dreher appreciated my broad-minded tolerance, he challenged me to actually read his book, “The Benedict Option.”

Happily, I did.

Dreher simply argues for cultivating a worldview, spiritual practices and habits of mind drawn from historic Christianity rather than from atomized, relativist and religiously individualist post-modern values.

“If Christians today do not stand firm on the rock of sacred order as revealed in our holy tradition, we will have nothing to stand on at all,” he warns.

Dreher takes readers on a brief tour of Western intellectual history from the smoldering ruins of the Roman Empire to the cultural rot of our own time. Predictably, things keep getting worse, and in his telling we stand on the precipice of a very dark age.

Biblical, revealed religion is just not going to withstand the scientific, philosophical and ethical attacks against it. Post-Christian ways of thinking took root so many centuries ago that by now, even most church people in the West accept them without even realizing it.

The unfortunate result of decayed religion in a secular age is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a term coined by sociologists but which proves the fiercest enemy in Dreher’s analysis.

Indeed, readers who expect Dreher to lay the blame with same-sex marriage or gender-neutral bathrooms will be disappointed. He is more distraught about how MTD has replaced religion in our society, even infecting most churches.

“Though superficially Christian,” Dreher writes, “MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the self and material comfort.”

Those who think Dreher will defend right-wing politics and conspicuous consumption will also be surprised. He takes aim, perhaps more timidly than some would like, at conservative Christians’ uncritical enthusiasm for capitalism.

In telling the stories of communities that are living out forms of the Benedict Option, Dreher invites readers to think about whether and how they might incorporate some of these principles into their own lives.

The book ends with a stinging critique of the soul-numbing effects of our technology and devices. Here, Dreher channels C.S. Lewis’ critique of scientism in a way that is accessible and compelling.

I came to “The Benedict Option” as a writer engaged in debates about religion in public life. But I could not help reading the book as a man approaching middle age with three young children.

While I spend little time worrying about whether Rod Dreher’s prognosis for American civilization is too dark, I actually worry a great deal about my children’s future and what my wife and I should be doing to prepare them for it.

In vivid ways, my entire intellectual and religious life has been forged in the increasingly irreconcilable conflict between the Christian past and what Dreher sees as an anti-Christian future.

My formation in mainline Protestantism approximated Moralistic Therapeutic Deism more than I would like to admit. And though I feel mostly at home in modern culture, my emphatic opinion that Christianity has self-evidently been more of a boon than a bane to civilization puts me at odds with many secular progressives.

Dostoyevsky said, “The second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.” “The Benedict Option” got me thinking critically about how I might inculcate better habits in my children.

Dreher has plenty of critics, and many of them have thoughtful objections to his analysis. He generally overlooks nonwhite Christian voices, and his defensiveness and dismissiveness toward concerns about his racial blinders are unbecoming.

I still find Dreher’s assessment of the present situation in “The Benedict Option” too gloomy. But his analysis is provocative and his suggestions merit serious consideration, regardless of how dismal things actually are.

He makes a fairly strong, if unfashionable, case for medieval ways of thinking that are arguably at least as enlightened as our own.

I am not sure whether the Christian past holds the keys to human flourishing in our time. But Dreher gives me reasonable doubt that the future we are embracing will be much better.

About the author

Jacob Lupfer