The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher is a controversial book and the overall premise is certainly timely considering the cultural pressure against traditional Christianity that exists in western societies. The church is being sidelined and accused of bigotry because of its long-term stance on sexual ethics. Jemar Tisby’s review of this book is accurate when he states that Dreher “wants to see Christians return to the practices that sustained the early church. He points to the Rule of St. Benedict, a set of disciplines composed by a monk in the 6th century, as his model. St. Benedict structured monastic life around simple yet powerful habits that included prayer, fasting, and simplicity. The Benedict Option presents the opportunity for Christians to preserve the faith by engaging in ancient counter-cultural habits.”
Tisby’s criticism of the book centers around the fact that Dreher went to 6th Century Europe for inspiration completely overlooking the example of the black church in America that historically has been shut out of the public square. The black church created a culture unto itself to sustain and support the Christian community of color. This argument seems reasonable and before reading The Benedict Option first hand I agreed with the assessment. The black church and communities have a tremendous amount of example and history that current Christian community at large will need to internalize and emulate in the future. It is my expectation that my own children will not be able to work in corporate America or government life without being purged for holding “bigoted” beliefs about marriage and gender. In fact, this purge is already happening at the leadership levels both in the private market and in the public square. Read here, here, and here for just a few examples.
What the reviewers of Dreher’s book seem to miss is the fact that Dreher is Greek Orthodox and this book is based on his faith tradition. Writing about other faith traditions that have lived in a hostile culture would have undermined the aim of this book. The reason why writing about the black church vs going back to Europe would not work for this book is because The Benedict Option is a low pressure sales presentation directed toward Evangelicals in the hope that some might convert to Greek Orthodox tradition.
The criticism of the church in America (very valid criticisms) laid out by Dreher are leveled at the typical protestant evangelical conservative church. Here are some examples…
- “the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves” (Dreher, 9)
- “I preferred to be a tourist at church – and was too spiritually immature to understand how harmful this was” (Dreher, 68)
- “treating worship as a consumer activity, and allowing parishioners to function as unaccountable, atomized members” (Dreher, 102)
- “she became Orthodox – a tradition that emphasizes [early church] writings and teachings. For this friend, the Christian faith amounted to the Bible as interpreted by the most popular Evangelical pastors of the day.” (Dreher, 103)
- “Evangelicalism has historically been focused not on institution building but on revivalism” (Dreher, 110)
These themes are an invitation by Dreher to be more intentional, disciplined, and accountable to a church. While he is encouraging all evangelical churches to experiment in these areas he himself would most likely point to the solid foundation of his Orthodox tradition.
Personally, I am not Orthodox and I identify as part of the evangelical church tradition. However, I have enjoyed reading the book immensely. There are two aspects of this book that have something for an evangelical to dwell on.
The first section of the book is a dialog or an interview of Americans who joined the Benedict monastery in Italy. Dreher does an excellent job of communicating why they live a harsh rule based life. Monks are not a normal concept to Evangelicals. Living under such constraining and many times pointless rules is at its very nature not Evangelical. Dreher writes “even these seemingly arbitrary rules serve a spiritual purpose” (Dreher, 56) and he then goes on to help the evangelical with understanding the Monk’s perspective and why it is also important for the normal everyday Christian.
Second is Dreher’s accurate criticism of the evangelical church’s lack of culture. He lovingly states that the church will be unable to go out and impact the culture if they have no culture of their own. “We cannot give the world what we do not have. If the ancient Hebrews had been assimilated by the culture of Babylon, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So, it is with the church” (Dreher, 19) I think of this as the church being washed out and flooded by the existing culture. Appeasing the culture on sex, marriage, and gender contrary to God’s perfect standards effectively removes Christ from Christian. Dreher’s call in this book is for Christians to be more Orthodox regarding fasting, liturgy, church discipline, and all the other things evangelicals have abandoned to spotlight the stage and blow smoke through the concert hall on Sunday mornings. He is promoting disciplines that give the church culture and creates order that Christians will need to stand in the coming storm.
Being an outsider to the evangelical church Dreher brings a perspective that is needed. There is wisdom from the early church that the modern evangelical church should incorporate back into practice. All the more so as religious freedom is infringed upon and traditional Christian values are not welcome because they are defined as “hate” by the popular culture.