5 Reactions to 'The Benedict Option'

Best-selling conservative author Rod Dreher has created debate over the direction of American Christianity and its relation to mainstream society with his recently released book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.

The book's main argument is that Christians of various denominations must create a counterculture and leave a mainstream American culture that is increasingly hostile to biblical Christianity.

The title and strategy take their name from St. Benedict of Nursia, a 6th century monk who fled the city of Rome to established his own Christian community.

"Today, a new, post–Christian barbarism reigns. Many believers are blind to it, and their churches are too weak to resist. Politics offers little help in this spiritual crisis," reads the Amazon description.

"What is needed is the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church. The goal: to embrace exile from mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture."

The Benedict Option and its manifesto has garnered support and criticism from multiple sources. What follows are five reactions to Dreher's argument.

1. James K.A. Smith

Calvin College Philosophy Professor James K.A. Smith took a critical view of the Benedict Option, contrasting it with St. Augustine of Hippo's correspondence with a public official named Boniface who considered leaving his post to enter a monastery.

"Given that Augustine founded monastic communities and wrote his own Rule, Boniface probably expected his plan to receive an encouraging reply from the aging bishop in Hippo," wrote Smith.

"Instead, Augustine counsels him to remain in his post as a matter of divine calling. While some are called to lives of chastity and perfect continence and cloistered devotion, Augustine notes, 'Each person, as the apostle says, has his own gift from God, one this gift, another that (1 Cor. 7:7). Hence others fight invisible enemies by praying for you; you struggle against visible barbarians by fighting for them.'"

Smith found Dreher's book "puzzling and frustrating," adding that it is "not clear what the endgame is that he expects, and I think there is some incoherence to his proposal because of it."

"Allegedly, the BenOp ark is where civilization will be guarded until—what, exactly? He seems to envision a time in the future where the florist and photographers and wedding cake bakers can let down the gang plank and re-enter a society that is eager to welcome them," continued Smith.

"But why would they? What's the theological grounding for that expectation, especially given the arc of the history Dreher tells?"

2. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig of Democracy Journal argued that while Dreher's book is "not exactly wrong" about American liberalism's hostility to Christianity, "it's not exactly right, either."

Bruenig especially took issue with Dreher's conclusion that Christians must retreat from American society, writing that "I can't seal myself away from society."

"Society is part of our nature; politics is part of our nature. Entering the fray is fraught just like walking into the surf is; you will be pulled and pushed and yet you know, because you love God, you will break above the waves with water in your eyes to see God's glory bright as sunlight," stated Bruenig.

"His name is written on the wind. It's inescapable. It's inscribed into the hustle and jolt of democracy, if you look closely, and believe."

3. Collin Hansen

Collin Hansen, executive director for The Gospel Coalition, wrote a mostly positive review of The Benedict Option, agreeing with Dreher's point about politics not being a source of salvation.

"I side with Dreher when he declines to see the election of President Trump as a watershed victory for fellow Benedictines," reasoned Hansen.

"Dreher's book was obviously written for a Hillary Clinton presidency, but no matter who had won, the campaign revealed how easily Christians could be manipulated on both sides to compromise their conscience for partisan ends."

Hansen also noted that the book identified itself as "'A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Culture.' Not 'the' strategy, but 'a' strategy."

"No, you don't need to agree with all the details of Dreher's strategy, dubbed the Benedict Option in honor of Benedict of Nursia (AD 480–547), the founder of Western monasticism," continued Hansen.

"But you'll remain confused if you don't agree that some strategy is necessary for sustainable Christian mission in an increasingly post-Christian culture."

4. Rachel Held Evans

Liberal evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans wrote a series of posts on Twitter dismissing the fundamental premise of The Benedict Option.

Evans argued that "Christians are NOT a persecuted minority in the U.S. Christians make up 75% of population & 91% of congress" and "White Christians have enough influence to hand Donald Trump the presidency. They are NOT a marginalized group in our society."

"An entire industry of books, films, & orgs reinforce this narrative. I call it the White Christian Industrial Persecution Complex," tweeted Evans.

"So focused on themselves & their 'persecution,' white Christians = oblivious/indifferent to suffering of actual religious/ethnic minorities."

5. David P. Goldman

David P. Goldman of PJ Media gave the book a mixed review, noting both strengths and weaknesses in Dreher's chapters.

"Dreher's book has both the charm and merit of a participant's account of the practicalities of withdrawing from the world," wrote Goldman.

"The first half of the book tries to account for the decline of Western civilization … the strongest chapters come later, recounting the experience of the religious who have tried to separate themselves from secular society, and exhorting the reader to embrace work, risk, and faith."

A major issue Goldman took with The Benedict Option was the strategy of withdrawing from society. Goldman described the experiences and struggles of Orthodox Jewish communities, who are known for their largely successful creation of countercultural enclaves.

"Dreher cites Jewish education and the diligence of students at Yeshiva University, but he does not mention how expensive it is to live the simple life outside the orbit of the secular world," cautioned Goldman.

"A relative handful of committed and competent parents now home-school their children, but a larger move to a Benedict Option of sorts will require schools, not to mention teacher-training colleges, adult education centers, publishing houses, and, eventually, universities."

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