Whether you come to it from the left or the right, Rod Dreher’s long-awaited The Benedict Option is a book that will not satisfy. Which is exactly why you should read it.
While Dreher has been thinking and writing about the Benedict Option on his blog at The American Conservative for almost a decade, the roots of the idea stretch back much further. They run, in fact, all the way back to Benedict of Nursia, one of the fathers of monasticism, who walked away from the gathering darkness of a decadent sixth-century Rome to build small islands of light, monasteries where communal prayer and scholarship, work and spiritual practice could be preserved.
To Dreher, today’s American Empire is like unto Benedict’s Roman: We are in crisis, descending quickly into moral chaos and social disorder. After the triumph of the sexual revolution and the napalming of community performed by an individuating neoliberal capitalism, we “have been loosed,” he says, “but we do not know how to bind.” The options for Christians in the face of such a crisis are limited. For Dreher, there is perhaps only one: Benedict’s. In order to resist the corrosive social forces that swirl around us, we must imitate him and strategically withdraw from public life so as to build disciplined communities of coherent Christian practice. Dreher has diagnosed our collective illness and given us a prescription for a remedy. And it is from this paired diagnosis and prescription that all of the conclusions in this problematic, beautiful, infuriating, necessary book flow.
It ought to come as no surprise that the book fails to satisfy. The Benedict Option is, after all, a rejection the both liberal and conservative political projects; the former because it rejects the values of the left, the latter because it believes the right has already been defeated.
On the left it does not satisfy for the expected reasons: Because it advocates pulling children out of public schools and seceding from the cultural mainstream. Because Dreher unabashedly calls for a return to traditional gender identities and celebrates disciplines that constrain individual freedom. And, if I am being honest, at times it fails to satisfy because of his teeth-grinding tendency to use “traditional,” “orthodox” and “conservative” as stand-ins for “good” and “true.”
But this is a book that will not satisfy the right either—and not just because of Dreher’s outright rejection of Trumpism as a farce. It will not satisfy because Dreher thinks that, after the Obergefell decision legalizing gay marriage and the subsequent prosecution of Christians for what they view as practicing their faith, the culture wars are already over. Christian America is already a contradiction in terms. Because in Dreher’s reading the sexual revolution has already won and a morally vacuous capitalism is already dominant. In light of this, his advice to Christians is to “come to terms with the fact that we live in a culture…in which our beliefs make little sense” and move on.
A book that leaves most of its readers dissatisfied is one that is easily pigeonholed, and already The Benedict Option is being forced into predictable corners. Which is not to say that these criticisms (see here, here and here) are incorrect—many are right as far as they go.
To wit: I take it be true that Dreher’s overemphasis on withdrawal lends itself to solipsism. It’s true that his reading of pluralism as a problem prevents him from seeing it as a gift. It’s true that his tone can be dismissive and caustic at times, especially when he writes of that notorious “L.G.B.T. agenda.” It’s true that he does not engage with the different experiences—Christian, political or otherwise—of black and brown and Native Americans. And I take it to be true that, although Dreher tries to distance himself from a let’s-get-back-to-the-golden-age dreaming, his diagnoses often sound darkly pessimistic and his prescriptions for the present nostalgic.
Although Dreher tries to distance himself from a let’s-get-back-to-the-golden-age dreaming, his diagnoses often sound darkly pessimistic and his prescriptions for the present nostalgic.
This may seem like a long list—and it is. But nothing is gained by settling only for critique. To do so means refusing to learn from the large swaths of what Dreher gets right. Because what Dreher gets right is just as important—perhaps even more important—as where he misses the mark.
The signal gift in Dreher’s work, the one our legitimate dissatisfactions may allow us to too-quickly overlook, is his steady insistence that in order to be Christians today—to bear the name of Christ in truth as well as in title—we must relearn two things: practices and disciplines. That is, Dreher is right in his persistent repetition that, when it comes to the question of how we build Christian persons, how we become Christians in habit as well as in mind, “what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it.”
The shivering importance of this emphasis on practices can be better seen when we notice that we are, all of us, being formed by the things we do every day. As the philosopher Will Durant put it in his one-line-synthesis of Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do." And what do we do every day? We check our phones; we watch our televisions; we drive our cars. We perform these “cultural liturgies,” as James K. A. Smith names them, by rote. They sink so deeply into us that they become muscle memory. It is these repeated actions that shape our habits, our habits that shape our characters, our characters that shape our tastes and our tastes that shape ourselves. It is this insight that Dreher rightly refuses to release.
And the consequence of this insight, too: that help is required to take on Christian habits. It is because we need help maintaining our practice that we require one another. In other words: It takes a community to make a Christian, a structured support system to take on habits. This is the idea that lies behind Dreher’s insistence that “we need to embed ourselves in stable communities of faith,” that we should “live within walking distance” of fellow believers and that we turn the home “into a domestic monastery” with “regular times of family prayer.”
Certainly, this is true for me. I have been a Jesuit for 15 years and if there is one thing I can say about this vocation, it is that I cannot do it alone. Every week for the past six years I have prayed compline with some of my brothers (ironically we do it over Google Hangout). I need a community to sustain me in my effort to practice being a Christian. As do we all. When looked at in this light, the Benedict Option begins to look less like a reactionary withdrawal from pluralist societies than a recommitment to a local politics of subsidiarity.
It is by looking again at our human need for such small communities of practice that Dreher’s admittedly controversial take on individual and communal disciplines comes more clearly into focus. The heart of his argument is that there are times when communal goods must trump individual freedoms. And this is because churches, argues Dreher, fall apart when they become simply another “loosely bound assembly of individuals committed to finding their own ‘truth.’”
The conflict between individual freedom and the common good—between loosing and binding—is what lies at the heart of what is most necessary and most problematic about the Benedict Option.
The conflict between individual freedom and the common good—between loosing and binding—is what lies at the heart of what is most necessary and most problematic about the Benedict Option. This is because, on the one hand, the trumping of individual freedoms by a common way of life always threatens to turn into autocracy and domination. But, on the other hand, we are all too aware that, in the liquid modernity in which we find ourselves, the trumping of the common good by individual freedom always threatens to destroy community.
This is what accounts for the strange mixture of attraction and repulsion that so many of us—liberal individualists that we are—feel when we read about the Benedict Option. We are attracted to it, and our attraction resonates because of how deeply we want community, how desperately we want to be reassured that the world makes sense and that our lives have a place within it. But the repulsion is there as well, and not only because, like the freedom-addicts we are, we are so hooked on individuality. The repulsion is there because there is a great goodness that we have found in the recognition that each of us is—really, in all actuality—a unique facet of the immortal diamond, the one who shines in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.
This is why The Benedict Option fails to satisfy. Not because Dreher has failed, but because he has succeeded in showing us our own failure to hold these two constitutive goods in loving tension. He is right to say that we “have been loosed but we do not know how to bind.” We must relearn how. And if you choose to read Dreher’s book, the exact shape of your dissatisfaction with it will, I venture to guess, correspond to the extent that you have experienced God as a loosing or as a binding force in your own life.
But just because these parts of his remedy are correct does not mean that all of his diagnosis is. There is, in fact, one final point that must be challenged. Dreher is convinced that part of the reason Christians must withdraw from the world is because, as he puts it, “we speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.”
Certainly, there are many instances in which this is true today. Anecdotes abound. But it is simply not the case that the West has gone deaf to the call of Christ. Even if the hearing of our secular world is more attuned to calls for justice and inclusion, more ready to find a call for holiness absurd or offensive, we should take seriously the evidence of God’s being already-at-work in both the world and human hearts. We must live more trustingly in the active work of an incarnational God—one who mercifully refuses to withdraw from anythinghuman— than to be tempted to think such.
Human beings remain, malleable creatures though we are, what Karl Rahner saw that we have always been: a question to which only God is the answer. Neither the fall of Rome nor our present crisis has stilled such questioning. It is because “my Father is still at work” that withdrawal is not the only Christian response. This is why there are more ways to practice a disciplined Christianity than by withdrawal.
Nevertheless, I take Dreher’s book to be doing the church a genuine and needed service. To the extent that his work reminds us that Christianity is a way of living together in the truth—reminds us that today binding is perhaps more necessary than ever—our response ought to be not dissatisfaction but gratitude.
Finding, then, in the Benedict Option a reminder of the grace of having been bound to a spouse, a family or a church, Dreher may become an ally rather than another rival to scapegoat. And Dreher, being reminded that there are more ways than Benedict’s to bind, may too discover that he has allies in unexpected places.
After all, it was none other than the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, that holy fool Frenchman Peter Maurin, who at midcentury wrote:
And we are now
in the age of chaos.
In an age of chaos
for a new order.
Because people are becoming aware
of this lack of order
they would like to be able
to create order
out of chaos.
to create order
out of chaos
The germ of the present
was in the past
and the germ of the future
is in the present.
The thing to do
is to give up old tricks
and start to play new tricks…
The thing to do right now
is to create a new society
within the shell of the old
with the philosophy of the new.
which is not a new philosophy
but a very old philosophy.
a philosophy so old
that it looks like new.