My dad owns his own carpet cleaning business. For years he’d been trying to land this Christian College near by but they wouldn’t give him their annual bid. Finally my dad’s carpet cleaning friends came along side him and gave him permission to pass on the college. If the College calls for work, sweet, if not, take a pass because it’s not worth the hassle of trying to lock them down on a yearly basis.
Like a friendly carpet cleaner, I give you permission to pass. No, I’m not an authority in your life, but as a friend I’m giving you permission to pass on this book. Listen to his YouTube talks if you’re really interested in what Rod Dreher has to say, but you don’t have to read The Benedict Option.
If you’re interested in being culturally relevant, then this book is a must. That’s the main reason I picked it up, but after reading it and taking the time to write this review, I wish I had just stuck with the YouTube videos.
“Why so pessimistic? Everyone’s buzzing about this Benedict Option!” Well, Rod Dreher is a brilliant dude, that’s for sure- but he’s Easter Orthodox. “Wow, genetic fallacy much?” I’m not saying He’s incapable of being correct, I’m just saying he comes from an Eastern Orthodox perspective just as I come from a Calvinistic Evangelical perspective.
“Why is that important?” Well, the tradition you’re coming from will shape your opinions of The Benedict Option. As a Calvinistic Evangelical, I was pretty triggered by his lack of gospel. I’m very much used to seeing two-part phrases like “gospel-driven”, “gospel-centered”, “gospel-saturated”, “God-honoring” and “Christ-exalting”. The Benedict Option is none of those.
Sure those phrases have become somewhat cliché but they are helpful reminders to keep the gospel the main thing and live our lives “on-mission” as we seek to reach the lost for Christ and his Kingdom. The Benedict Option is not “mission-minded”. Throughout the book, Dreher uses phrases like “living the Gospel”, which are sure to trigger most Calvinists to shout out “We proclaim the Gospel! You can’t live news!”.
The Benedict Option is more about surviving the times, rather than transforming the culture or reaching the lost who still live there.
So what is it and why’s It Called The Benedict Option?
Dreher proposes that Christians spend less time focusing on politics and the culture at large and spend more time battening down the hatches, focusing on our Christian communities, teaching our Children the faith (whether it’s Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Evangelical), and building bridges between “small o” orthodox Christians. A lot of good stuff to be sure.
The book’s name comes from St. Benedict who founded what has come to be known as, “Benedictine Monasteries”. St. Benedict went to study in Rome after it’s fall and left right away due to the extreme licentiousness and violence he saw there. He went and lived in a cave for three years and then started his first monastery shortly after.
From the name, “The Benedict Option”, it’s easy to see why people would assume this is a retreat strategy. The name sounds very defeatist or at the least retreatist.
Dreher assures us over and over that he’s not suggesting we retreat into Christian ghettos, but rather, he exhorts us to build Christian communities that are “porous” to allow others to come in. I think he goes a tad too far when he starts using the Mormons as an example in chapter 6, commending them for what I would describe as culty leadership and community practices.
We should stop trying to meet the world on its own terms and focus on building up fidelity in distinct community. Instead of being seeker-friendly, we should be finder-friendly, offering those who come to us a new and different way of life. it must be a way of life shaped by the biblical story and practices that keep us firmly focused on the truths of that story in a world that wants to obscure them and make us forget. It must be a way of life marked by stability and order and achieved through the steady work, both communal and individual, of prayer, asceticism, and service to others…
Now that sounds pretty good but he’s missing one key element… The Great Commission. Jesus said “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation”, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations. Jesus did not say, “If you build it, they will come”.
Dreher is concerned with our Christian culture being lost, I get that and I respect it. However, he focuses on the Christian ghetto to the exclusion of the Great Commission. He keeps saying that he’s not talking about a Christian retreat into a ghetto or a Christian bubble, but continues to say things that contradict his assurances.
The main problem I have with this Benedictine influence is one of the things Dreher commends about them.
The order of the monastery produces not only humility but also spiritual resilience. In one sense, the Benedictine monks of Norcia are like a Marine Corps of teh religious life, constantly training for spiritual warfare.
Well, that’s cool and all, but they train and train but never get in the fight! “Well, their praying and they do community service projects here and there”, cool, but that’s not evangelism. This is a big difference between the Evangelical’s perspective and the other “orthodox” perspectives.
For an Evangelical Christian, retreat into our own little subcultures is not an option. We’ve been entrusted with talents and we know what happens to the guy who hid his in the ground…
Dreher makes some good points about building social capital by living close to your fellow church members and about pulling your children out of public school. The intro and the first two chapters are actually very informative and worth the read. But at the end of the day, the good stuff from this book is being taught by Calvinists already.
Piper and Chandler have been warning us for years that this isn’t a Christian nation, that the world is not our friend. Mohler has been teaching us how to understand the shifting culture for decades. We have been creating out own subcultures, clothing lines, micro breweries, Facebook groups, pub theology hangouts, and the like. We are supporting each others small businesses. We are becoming more liturgical. We are looking to the past – specifically the Reforrmation – but even church fathers- to find our heroes. These are all suggestions that Dreher makes and while I could see this needing to be addressed in the other groups under his “small ‘o’ orthodox”, the New Calvinism has been at this for a while now and I don’t think we’re slowing down, thank God.
Dreher admits that The Benedict Option is nothing new as he quotes Leah Libresco, “People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!'” Libresco told me. “But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, taht makes people care.”
So all that to say, if you’re familiar with the “New Calvinist” movement, you already know the good from this book. Feel free to take a pass on it. If you’re interested in the gospel and culture I’d pick up Counter Culture by David Platt and if you’re interested in a biblical theology of culture then grab Created and Creating by William Edgar. If you’re interested in Faith and politics I’d grab A Free People’s Suicide by Os Guinness and If You Can Keep It by Eric Metaxas. If you’re interested in the culture wars then definitely grab
by Albert Mohler.
If you do decide to read The Benedict Option then I think you can grab some good stuff from it, but I wish I hadn’t bothered.