It’s taken me quite awhile to read this book — over a month. This is partly because it got off to a slow start. If I were to reread it, I’d start with the second half, which discusses current cultural trends, and then go back and read the history covered in the first half. But another reason for my slowness is that the book gave me lots to think about, much of which is disturbing.
Having finished the book, I looked up a few reviews online and virtually all the ones I read oversimplify the book. Perhaps Rod Dreher should have done a better job of clarifying his focus. But this is a book that touches many hot button issues, and I think the reviews reflect this; readers may find it hard to see it objectively and comprehensively. Setting up a straw man and punching it repeatedly is much easier.
I learned about the book listening to an interview with David Brooks, who described it as a call for Christians to withdraw from society to preserve pure orthodoxy. But this isn’t quite right. It is a call for Christians to come together in a time of great challenge. Dreher uses the Benedictines, who developed a thriving monastic culture that ended up preserving Christianity through the Dark Ages, as a model Christians should think about. But it is not puristic separatism that Dreher emphasizes; rather, he points to the spiritual disciplines and community bonds that strengthened the Benedictines and kept them faithful to the orthodox faith they professed. Instead of drifting with the current of culture, they held to their beliefs.
Dreher argues that Christians have felt like the comfortable majority for so long that they depend almost exclusively on political action to “enforce” Christian values — rather than practicing them in disciplined, living faith communities. Political force has nowhere near the strength or integrity of authentic faith. Little wonder that against the cultural tides in issues such as gender, sexuality, and technology, Christianity loses ground. Core doctrines in the areas of gender and sexuality have become matters of dispute even in the church, even though it is the cultural context, not the content of Scripture, that has changed. (I’ve certainly noticed this in some of my recent reading. Rachel Held Evans, for example, goes far afield in her perspective on marriage in Searching for Sunday.)
Instead of relying on political power or a majority status in the public square, Dreher argues, Christians need to do some soul searching — and not just because they have lost both of these options. Far from advocating a cult-like withdrawal from culture, as some have accused him of doing, Dreher urges a coming together of Christians to encourage and support one another in holding to the love and truth of Christ. This is a very different thing from making public pronouncements or political statements. It has nothing to do with inflicting a Christian viewpoint on the world, but rather with demonstrating what a life devoted to God looks like. This is what the earliest Christians did, and they did it in a culture that went in radically different directions morally and spiritually, as ours does.
I Thessalonians 4 says, “Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. 12 Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others.” This is essentially what Dreher is writing about and calling “The Benedict Option.” He discusses what this might look like in a range of areas such as politics, spiritual disciplines, community life, education, and attitudes toward sex and technology. I especially appreciated his discussion of a Christian perspective on technology, which I think is a great blind spot for many Christians.
We live in an age of Thought Police. Quite honestly, I feel apprehensive about even trying to review this book, because mere words (in a country that champions freedom of speech) or beliefs (in a country that champions freedom of religion) are considered Thought Crimes worthy of intense public shaming and punishment. Dreher has drawn a lot of fire for this book, mainly from LGBT quarters. But the book includes a more comprehensive and thought-provoking discussion of our cultural life than such criticism would imply. It should not be seen as a political threat, because its whole gist is to advocate an alternative to political action: integrity in the entire fabric of the Christian life. So don’t believe everything you hear. The Benedict Option is worth reading for yourself.