Having dispensed yesterday with the idea that Donald Trump’s election made The Benedict Option moot, I turn in this post to the book’s actual content.
The Benedict Option addresses how American Christians should face two pressing challenges today. The first challenge is external hostility toward traditionalist Christians and Christian institutions. This hostility has burrowed into powerful institutions in business, education, media, entertainment, politics, and law. Once upon a time, upon lands not far away, the Christian strategy for dealing with this hostility was a national culture war, waged chiefly through the Republican Party and an assortment of national political and legal organizations. The Benedict Option‘s assessment of the culture war’s outcome is simple: Christians lost. It’s time to move on from the business of trying to gain the world — because it’s futile, and because the consuming intensity of national culture war campaign has for too long distracted us from cultivating our own souls, homes, churches, personal relationships, and local organizations.
Which leads to the second challenge facing American Christians addressed in The Benedict Option: internal rot in teaching and practice. That Mr. Dreher recognizes this as the graver threat is evident by the relative space he devotes to it. In doctrine, too many Christians and churches are given to a watery deism that holds that God wants us to be good and to be happy — with the definitions of “good” and “happy” left vague enough to be filled in with definitions from the broader culture. As far as the churches’ practice, too often their members are given to the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions, rather than to the application, adornment, and spread of the Christian Gospel. Where The Benedict Option really comes into its own is in its proposals for how American Christians should act to clear the rot out of their houses and replace it with sound, firm timber.(1)
In taking on the American churches’ internal problem, The Benedict Option is consistently practical. The book’s emphasis on consistent, ordered, local practices is characteristically Benedictine. The prescribed practices require discipline and re-orientation toward more uniquely Christian goals, but they are within the layperson’s reach. In this, the spirit of The Benedict Option very much aligns with what Fr. Robert Hart wrote of the Anglican Common Prayer tradition:
The average working man or woman, or the average child in school or young person in college, can read daily Morning Prayer and daily Evening Prayer and at least keep up with the schedule of scripture reading. It is true that the Prayer Book contains services for the Church, sacramental rites for Baptism, for Confirmation, for marriage, and the Ordinal added in 1550. It contains a funeral rite. Yes, the book is the book for all public services. But, it is more than that. It is also a simplified Benedictine Rule for the common man (emphasis added), and this is the tradition of English prayer that has been made available to everyone through the Anglican Common Prayer tradition.
The Benedict Option is not itself “a simplified Benedictine Rule for the common man,” (2) but it is an earnest exhortation to Christians and churches to adopt and practice such a Rule, and a collection of practical proposals for how to make it happen. Fittingly, the book (mostly) arranges these around the same principles that appear in St. Benedict’s Rule: ordered prayer, work (especially labor with hands), community, stability (i.e. commitment to one community), and hospitality to outsiders (“let everyone that comes be received as Christ”). In these proposals and principles, one can see reflected the practice of the Jerusalem Church in the Book of Acts — “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” — and the fulfillment of Jesus’s Great Commandment.
The end of The Benedict Option‘s proposals, including the proposed “strategic withdrawal from public life,” is focus upon forming a culture whose members may better love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as their selves. As in the first century, however, such ends, and the means prescribed for achieving them, are apt to arouse critics. The next post will address them.
(1) For a helpful index of The Benedict Option‘s practical propositions, see Brad Littlejohn’s summary and collection here.
(2) The reason The Benedict Option couldn’t itself be a Rule: the book is intentionally ecumenical in the sense that it’s addressed to all “small-o orthodox” Christians — Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Each of those traditions has distinct resources for practicing some form of the Benedict Option, but the forms that may grow in each branch of the Church will look quite different.
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