I just finished reading the Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. I also recently read and reviewed Tony Esolen’s new book, Out of the Ashes, which is in my opinion, the better book of this genre. Dreher’s book has generated an enormous amount of attention. But if you only have time to read one book, read Esolen’s book.
I am not clear on whether the Benedict Option is:
- a quietistic retreat from politics, or
- a strategic retreat to live to fight another day, or
- a joyful embrace of the full Christian life because it is the life most worth living, no matter what may be going on in the World.
I’m not sure whether Dreher himself is clear. Option #3 was certainly the motivation of the original St. Benedict, and his many sons and daughters down to this day. And, Tony Esolen is definitely an option #3 guy.
What makes The Benedict Option worth reading:
- Its argument is explicitly Christian. No more making arguments that are accessible only to “public reasons.”
- Dreher argues that Christianity is good, and deserves to survive. In fact, the World needs for faithful Christians to keep the Christian message alive, because the World is not doing well without it.
- Dreher has many practical suggestions for maintaining and building a Christian identity, in the face of an increasingly hostile World.
Having said all that, I do have a couple of problems with this book, and with Dreher’s writing in general.
First, he sometimes acts as if he is the only guy who has ever thought of these things. This is an annoyance, but not a super-serious problem. He says: “One reason the contemporary church is in so much trouble is that religious conservatives of the last generation mistakenly believed they could focus on politics and the culture would take care of itself.” (pg 81) Who ever thought that?
Further on, he makes this remarkable claim (without a footnote, mind you): “Fundamental abortion rights remain solidly in place, and Gallup numbers from the Roe v Wade era until today have not meaningfully changed.” (pg 82).
That’s odd. The millenial generation opposes abortion and favors its restriction more than older generations, even if Millenials do not self-identify as “pro-life.” The pro-choice Guttmacher Institute breathlessly reports that states have enacted over 1,000 abortion restrictions in the past 5 years. This doesn’t sound like complete political failure to me. Nor does it sound like a complete failure of cultural engagement. On the contrary, it sounds like successful involvement in both arenas.
“Fundamental abortion rights remain solidly in place” because the Supreme Court has repeatedly circled the wagons around said “rights.”
I know very well the frustration of having Courts overturn social conservative measures that were duly enacted by voters. I was a spokeswoman for Proposition 8. I lived through that whole drama, of winning the election (quite decisively, thank you very much) and then watching courts overturn it on one flimsy pretext after another.
I sympathize with Dreher’s frustration. But enacting measures and then having the courts repeatedly overturn them is not an argument against politics per se. Nor is it an argument that we have done politics badly.
It may mean we need a new strategy. But I do think we owe it to the people who have knocked themselves out in the public square to acknowledge their efforts. We should not dismiss them so casually as Dreher appears to do in the passage I quoted and in other places.
This brings me to my biggest complaint about The Benedict Option. He keeps saying: “We lost.” This bugs me. A lot. For several reasons.
- It is one thing to say that a particular political effort failed. It is another to say “we lost,” as if there is no longer anything left to do but hunker down and accept permanent dhimmitude.
- It is one thing to say that our strategies are not working, and that we need to try something else. I get that. In fact, I have myself advocated strategic retreat for the purpose of regrouping. But that is not the same thing as saying, “we lost,” as if the battle is over.
- Finally,and most importantly, the cause of Truth is never decisively lost. It cannot be. We have a responsibility to continue to speak the Truth, love the Truth and live the Truth, no matter what the outcome may be. I would call this the Solzhenitsyn Option, or the Václav Havel Option.
We Christians cannot continue doing our ordinary occupations in our accustomed manner. What will come after the Modern World shakes itself apart? And what will Christians contribute? Dreher has done a great service in inducing so many people to be part of this all-important discussion.