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The Bible and The Benedict Option – Part I

In 2017, Rod Dreher published his book The Benedict Option – A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.[1] Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. Dreher is Roman Catholic and received book endorsements from high level Catholic officials as well as favorable endorsements from several well-respected Protestant conservatives including Russell Moore, President, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore wrote, “I’m more missionary than monastery, but I think every Christian should read this book. Rod Dreher is brilliant, prophetic, and wise. Even if you don’t agree with everything in this book, there are warnings here to heed and habits here to practice.”[2]

Reverend Moore may be correct in his assessment that there are nuggets of wisdom that may be gleaned from Dreher’s book. But Moore’s encouragement for Christians to read Dreher’s book ignores two significant dangers for the typical modern evangelical Christian. The first is the pandemic biblical illiteracy of the evangelical church in America and the remainder of Western civilization. Some have said that the knowledge of the Bible across the Christian world is the lowest since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago. The second danger is apostasy. The liberal church had become fully apostate by the 1930s, and much of the leadership of many of the once conservative evangelical churches had traveled far down the road to apostasy by the end of the twentieth century. Considering what has happened over the last two hundred years in Europe and America, Kevin Swanson called this period “the most significant Christian apostasy of all time. As measured by sheer numbers, there is no other apostasy so extensive in recorded history.”[3]

Because of these twin dangers, the average Christian is ill prepared to be able to separate the warnings and habits the evangelical Christian ought to heed and practice from the deceptive and seductive charms of false doctrines of the Catholic Church. Here we are reminded of Jesus’ parable of the wheat and tares found in Matthew 13:24-30. Dreher’s book does contain wheat but also many tares. It is the purpose of this article to examine the propositions and recommendations of Dreher and make that separation, that is, to separate the wheat from the tares.

Dreher makes powerful and discerning arguments that unmask the great secularization of culture and the weakened condition of the church in our time. He also laments that the churches—Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox—are largely ineffective in stemming the forces of cultural decline and have become “content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.”[4] There can be little argument with these statements.

In the first part of his book, Dreher defines the challenges facing post-modern Christian America. Many of his observations are devastatingly clear presentations of the signs of the times.

The storm clouds have been gathering for decades, but most of us believers have operated under the illusion that they would blow over…Today we see that we’ve lost on every front and that the swift and relentless currents of secularism have overwhelmed our flimsy barriers…We tell ourselves that these developments have been imposed by a liberal elite, because we find the truth intolerable: The American people, either actively or passively, approve.[5]

If demographic trends continue, our churches will soon be empty. Even more troubling, many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where “Christianity” taught there is devoid of power and life.[6]

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)…is colonizing existing Christian Churches, destroying biblical Christianity from within, and replacing it with a pseudo-Christianity that is “only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.”…it’s most about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. Thought superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort.[7]

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.

Just as God used chastisement in the Old Testament to call His people back to Himself, so He may be delivering a like judgement onto a church and a people grown cold from selfishness, hedonism, and materialism. The coming storm may be the means through which God delivers us.[8]

Dreher correctly identifies much of what ails the Christian world in the West. But his solutions involve an undeniably Catholic prescription centered on Catholic doctrine and practices which are to be applied to all of Christianity. This prescription recommends and incorporates the Christian virtues found in a sixth century monastic guidebook, Rule of Saint Benedict, which he claims played a significant role in preserving Christian culture during the Dark Ages.

In the second part of his book, Dreher presents this guidebook as having answers that can be adapted and applied to the lives of modern Christian conservatives of all churches and confessions with regard to politics, faith, family, community, education, and work. In the last two chapters before his conclusion, Dreher addresses the calamitous impact of modernity’s powerful tsunami of sex and technology that has devastated the modern Western church.[9]

The Benedict Option

In a previous book written by Dreher, he quotes philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who believed that Western civilization had lost its moorings and eventually would require that continued Christian participation in a hostile secular culture would not be possible and would require that they find new ways to live in community. Dreher labeled MacIntyre’s strategic withdrawal from such a hostile culture “the Benedict Option.”[10]

The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.[11]

Benedict was the son of the governor of Nursia, a rugged village in central Italy’s Sibylline Mountains. At the beginning of the sixth century, Benedict was a young man and left his village to complete his education in Rome. Ninety years earlier, the Visigoths sacked Rome and only 24 years earlier the barbarians had deposed the last Roman emperor in the West. The barbarian-ruled Rome had become a city of decadence, vice, and corruption which shocked the young Benedict. As a result, he turned his back on his life of privilege and retreated to a cave forty miles east of Rome. There he lived life as a hermit devoting himself to prayer and contemplation. After three years he was invited to become the abbot of a monastic community. He would later found twelve monasteries of his own in the region.[12]

Benedict wrote a small guidebook for laymen, later known as Rule of Saint Benedict, a practical guide for monks and nuns to lead an orderly and simple life consecrated to Christ.[13] Benedict’s little book provided a detailed set of instructions for organizing and governing a monastic community that lives in poverty and chastity which is common to all monastic orders. However, Benedict’s Rule added three distinct vows: “obedience, stability (fidelity to the same monastic community until death), and conversion of life, which meant dedicating oneself to the lifelong work of deepening repentance.” The Rule provides for division of the day into periods devoted to “prayer, work, and reading of scripture and other sacred texts.”[14]

Dreher says that although Benedict’s Rule is for monastics, its teachings are plain and therefore understandable by lay Christians. “It provides a guide to serious and sustained Christian living in a fashion that reorders us interiorly, bringing together what is scattered within our hears and orienting it to prayer.” Dreher believes that such actions Christians can build lives that stand “as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity…a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing.”[15]

There is a measure of beneficial wheat in Dreher’s book, but for the Protestant, the indiscriminate implementation of The Benedict Option brings with it many Catholic tares, both in doctrines and practices. We shall examine both the wheat and tares of The Benedict Option in Part II.

Larry G. Johnson
The Bible and The Benedict Option – Part I
Sources:

[1] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option – A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).
[2] Ibid., dust jacket.
[3] Kevin Swanson, Apostate – The Men who destroyed the Christian West, (Parker, Colorado: Generations with Vision, 2013), p. 19.
[4] Dreher, The Benedict Option, pp. 1-2.
[5] Ibid., pp. 8-9.
[6] Ibid., p. 10.
[7] Ibid., pp. 10-11.
[8] Ibid., p. 19.
[9] Ibid., p. 4.
[10] Ibid., p. 2.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., pp. 12-14.
[13] Ibid., p. 15.
[14] Ibid., pp. 50-51.
[15] Ibid., pp. 53-54.

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