At first, he seemed to have a good thesis:
The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.
Three cheers for that! Dreher seemed to be criticizing the idea of Christendom, where the church and the world are one. He notes
As lay Christians, we have to build some kind of walls to separate ourselves from the world so that we can continue to go out into the world and minister to people and be who Christ asked us to be. The culture itself is so toxic and so anti-Christian that we’re just not going to make it if we let anybody and anything come into our hearts and into our imaginations.” (Mohler @39:00)
Three cheers! Christ established his church to be in the world, but not of it. The church is a gathering of those called out of the world and it establishes the wall of membership to distinguish itself from the world and through the means of grace to put to death the love of the world. Christendom severely compromised this call by equating the world and the church. Living in Christendom, Calvin commented upon 1 Cor. 5:10-12 “Paul said this at a time when Christians were as yet mingled with heathens, and dispersed among them, what ought to be done now, when all have given themselves to Christ in name?… [T]here are none that are strangers, when all take upon themselves Christ’s name, and are consecrated to him by baptism.” In this sense, the fall of Christendom is to be cheered for Christendom has always been an enemy of the kingdom of Christ.
But that is not what Dreher has in mind. Rather, Dreher laments the downfall of Christendom and sees the Benedict Option as a backup plan to keep Christianity afloat (he calls it an ark) during the coming “dark age” until it can re-emerge when people are “ready to hear the gospel again” in order to re-establish Christendom (“establish your shelter, your monastery in a safe place so you can be there for the rebuilding”). Dreher’s focus throughout is this world, this life, the kingdom of this world. Ironically then, the Benedict Option is a very worldly call for Christians to separate from the world. Why? Because Christians are not of this world? No, because the world is no longer Christian.
As others have noted, when you listen to everything Dreher has to say, the Benedict Option is really nothing more than a call to be intentional about being a Christian. Be careful what you listen to and watch and read. Be intentional about community and education. Be intentional about raising your children. All basic stuff. Of course the question is, why do we have to start being intentional now? Well, because Christendom has fallen and Christianity is no longer the dominant worldview, therefore Christians need to be deliberate and intentional about their Christian life. Before you could just go to school and go to work like everyone else, watch the same stuff as everyone else and live like everyone else and still be a Christian, because we lived in a Christian nation. But now we don’t, so now you have to stop and think and be intentional about being a Christian, since most people aren’t anymore. So now, “to live in the world as faithful Christians [will] require some critical withdrawal from the mainstream.”
This worldly focus comes as little surprise when you find out Dreher “came to Christ through the Roman Catholic Church” and that he “read [his] way into the Roman Catholic Church from being an agnostic, atheist teenager… It was a very intellectual conversation. I was extremely prideful intellectually. I thought that if I had the syllogism in my head, my faith could withstand any trial.” But later he realized he needed more than a syllogism (proving the existence of God), he also needed ritual. So he became Eastern Orthodox, where he made his faith “incarnate.” There is little evidence Dreher is someone who has been convicted of his sinfulness and his need for a Savior, rather than simply someone who found atheism, and then the Roman Catholic Church, untenable. Consider how Dreher thinks Mormons relate to the Benedict Option.
One thing that’s really delighted me and surprised me in doing this research is to get to know more about what the LDS church does. Leaving theological concerns aside, as a social entity they do a terrific job of integrating faith with communal life and to looking out for each other. I think the rest of us from the older Christian traditions have a lot to learn from Mormons.
The Benedict Option is a thoroughly worldly vision of cultural transformation written by a cultural commentator (who admits he’s kind of making it up as he goes). He does not have anything to offer Reformed Christians about how to live our life as pilgrims in this world. Go listen to some expository preaching on Christian living instead. (That doesn’t mean everything he says is wrong, it just means there’s no reason to look to him for answers)
- See also The Benedict Option or the Augustinian Call? (I’m not endorsing Smith’s view, just his review)