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The Bible and The Benedict Option – Part II

Rod Dreher believes that Christian participation in a hostile secular culture is no longer possible and that conservative Christians must develop a unique, countercultural way to live their lives and raise their families in order to hold on to their faith and their values. To fight the world’s efforts to assimilate Christianity and infuse it with the world’s value system, conservative Christians must have a paradigm shift as they rethink how they live their lives within the family, their church, and community. Dreher calls this strategic withdrawal from a hostile culture “The Benedict Option.”[1] Although Dreher rightly assesses the need for greater separation between the church and the world’s value system in many spheres of life, the implementation of many of Dreher’s options based on the Rule of Benedict incorporates several Catholic doctrines and practices that stand in opposition to the Bible and Protestant doctrines. In Part II, we shall examine some of the most important points of conflict.

Monasticism

The heart of Dreher’s effort at separating the Christian life from the world rests on Catholic monasticism. Monasticism began with Antony, an Egyptian peasant, who went alone into the desert and after thirty-five years emerged as a spiritual master. Saint Athanasius immortalized Antony by writing his biography which helped spread the “monastic” or “ascetic” movement near the end of the fourth century about the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. At this time certain ones of the church became hermits or monks and were known as the Desert Fathers.[2] These men and women sold all of their possessions and began a life of penance and prayer. Eventually, many of these monks came together in monasteries, in which each monk had his own cell, to withdraw from the world and live alone. The goal of these early monks was to “flee from a world that was wicked in order to lead a holy life.”[3]

Dreher admits that the Rule is for monasteries, but he states that its teachings can be adapted by lay Christians for use in ordering their daily lives in a way that “orders us interiorly, bringing together what is scattered within our own hearts and orienting it to prayer.” Dreher calls it “a manual of practices through which believers can structure their lives around prayer, the Word of God, and the ever-deepening awareness …” of God’s universal presence.[4] But Christians do not need the Rule of Benedict to achieve these worthy goals when they have the Word of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to guide them in their Christian growth.

Monasticism was a reaction to the decline of the early church as it was infiltrated by the Roman world system when Christianity was legalized and eventually became the Empire’s official religion in 381. In other words, monasticism fosters a religion of works, that is, doing works for God as opposed to having a personal relationship with Him. According to church historian B. K. Kuiper,

…monasticism was based upon the recognition by the Church of a higher and a lower morality. If one wished to be a Christian in a higher sense one should become a monk or nun…This differentiation between a higher and lower morality is a false distinction…The underlying error of monasticism as a method of attaining holiness is thinking that the sinful heart is cleansed by fleeing from the world.[5]

The quest for renewed spirituality by the monastics during the Middle Ages seemed to lead to revival of religion, but it was an unhealthy revival. Monasticism’s revival led to asceticism and not a return to the pure teachings of the Bible.[6]

Asceticism

The form of monasticism which led men to separate themselves from society and become hermits living in forests and caves during the fourth century became a widely accepted practice in the Eastern Orthodox churches. In the monasticism of the Western Roman church, monks and nuns generally grouped themselves into monasteries and convents. These monks and nuns observed a variety of ascetic practices including rejection of earthly goods, frequent fasting, limiting their food and drink, and some eating nothing but bread and water. All rejected marriage. Some beat themselves with whips or scourges as a means of chastising themselves. Apart from their assigned work, they spent their time in prayer, reading religious books, and meditation. In time various monasteries formed themselves in monastic orders which several cloisters were under the rule of a common government.

According to Dreher, the vision of Benedict’s Rule is to help the Christian achieve “an ordered life centered on Christ and the practices it prescribes to deepen our conversion…”[7] [emphasis added] One of those Catholic practices to achieve the ordered life is asceticism by which is meant “taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal…” According to Dreher, “…the life prescribed by the Rule is thoroughly ascetic…”[8] [emphasis added]

This is not a matter of earning spiritual merit. Rather, the monk knows the human heart and how its passions must be reined in through disciplined living…ascetical practices train body and soul to put God above self…A Christian who practices asceticism trains himself to say no to his desires and yes to God…

To rediscover Christian asceticism is urgent for believers who want to train their hearts, and the hearts and the hearts of their children, to resist the hedonism and consumerism at the core of contemporary culture. In the teaching of the Desert Fathers, every Christian struggles to root out all desires within their hearts that do not harmonize with God’s will.[9]

Luke’s gospel says, “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and follow me.” [Luke 9:23. KJV] Is this biblical confirmation of the Catholic practice of asceticism? Absolutely not! Those who promote Catholic asceticism misinterpret the denial of oneself as commanded by Christ. The self-denial required by Christ is belief in the truth of His message and a commitment to follow him regardless of the cost. But asceticism’s mandate is that the Christian should purposely seek out discomfort or pain to train the body and soul to put God above self. The Apostle Paul said, “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy.” [1Timothy 6:17. KJV] Often, those following the ascetic practices of self-denial do so in order to purge himself from sin or earn God’s favor, but no amount of austerity can earn salvation or obtain God’s love which He freely gives. The Christian does not live by a set of rules devised by man, be they saint or sinner, but must live by the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Asceticism is often linked with the Catholic sacrament of penance which is different from the Protestant understanding of repentance for sin. The central core of penance was the priest’s act of pardoning of sin and release from eternal punishment (absolution). There are three parts of absolution: contrition, confession to a priest, and satisfaction. Satisfaction was a penalty for sins committed, and the priest would decide the type of satisfaction required of the penitent. There were many types of satisfaction that could be imposed including the saying a prescribed number of prayers, fasting, giving alms, going on a pilgrimage to a shrine, or by participating in a crusade. Many times it involved pain.[10] Recall that the Catholic Church’s abuse of penance was the spark that led to the Protestant Reformation.

Prayer

Dreher states that to pray is to engage in contemplation. The Benedictine method of contemplative prayer is called lectio divina.

For monks, prayer is not simply words they speak. Each monk spends several hours daily doing lectio divina, a method of Scripture study that involves reading a Scripture passage, meditating on it, praying about it, and finally contemplating its meaning for the soul. The idea is not to study the Bible as a scholar would but rather to encounter it as God speaking directly to the individual…It is not just some kind of intellectual meditation.[11]

There are four stages to enter into lectio divina which “enables the Bible, as the Word of God, to become a means of union with God.”[12]

1. Reading/Listening

Lectio reading – In the Prologue to Benedict’s Rule, he states, …we must learn to be silent…to first quiet down in order to hear God’s word to us. As they read, practitioners of the art of lectio divina are encouraged to cultivate “the ability to listen deeply, to hear ‘with the ear of our hearts’…” Lectio is also reverential listening “…both in a spirit of silence and of awe…” listening for the still, small voice of God that will speak personally, quietly, and intimately to the practitioner as they “read slowly, attentively, gently listening to hear a word or phrase that is God’s word for us this day.” [emphasis added]

2. Meditation

Once the practitioner has found a word or a passage in the Scriptures which speaks to him in a personal way, he must take it in and “ruminate” on it similar to that of a cow quietly chewing its cud. Then, the practitioner must memorize it, and while gently repeating it to himself, allow it to interact with the practitioner’s thoughts, hopes, memories, and desires. Through such meditation, the practitioner supposedly allows God’s word to become His word that touches and affects the practitioner at his deepest levels. [emphasis added]

3. Prayer

The third step in lectio divina is to offer prayer which is to be both a loving conversation with God and a prayer of consecration. In this consecration-prayer, the participant allows the word that they have received and pondered to touch and change their deepest selves. At this point God invites the practitioner of lectio divina to hold up their most difficult and pain-filled experiences to Him, and to gently recite over them the healing word or phrase He has given them in their reading, listening, and meditation.

4. Contemplation

In the last stage the practitioner contemplates in wordless silence the presence of God who has used His word as a means of inviting the practitioner to accept His transforming embrace.[13]

There are various modern versions of lectio divina which have invaded many evangelical churches beginning in the 1980s. All methods of contemplative prayer including lectio divina contain various occult practices used in Eastern religions such as quietness, stillness (emptying one’s mind of thought and emotions), and repetition of sounds, words, or phrases. Proponents of such contemplative prayer describe the practice as follows:

Contemplative prayer, in its simplest form, is a prayer in which you still your thoughts and emotions and focus on God Himself. This puts you in a better state to be aware of God’s presence, and it makes you better able to hear God’s voice, correcting, guiding, and directing you.

The repetition [of a word or phrase] can in fact be soothing and very freeing, helping us…to empty out our crowded interior life and create the quiet space where we can dwell with God.[14]

Those practicing contemplative prayer are encouraged to achieve inner stillness through meditative, mantra-style practices such as taking a word or syllable and repeating it over and over. However, these contemplative prayer practices closely mimic New Age and Eastern meditation techniques and can quickly lead to putting the mind into a neutral, altered state of consciousness. Such states are an open door to all manner of evil, mystical satanic spirits.

Dreher encourages parents to teach their children scripture through the practice of lectio divina. But Christians do not need occult contemplative prayer practices in order to come into union with God. Rather, all Christians, whether young or old, can find the peace, joy, and fellowship that arise from a close personal and growing relationship with God. This occurs through an adherence to biblical practices of prayer, the reading of God’s Word with all of one’s heart and mind, and the work of the in-dwelling Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life.
______

In Part II we have discussed the errant Catholic doctrine and practices of monasticism, asceticism, and lectio divina promoted by Dreher. These are significant departures from biblical doctrines and Protestant theology. As pointed out in Part I, this is one of the great dangers of a casual reading of The Benedict Option by a vast body of biblically illiterate Christians in evangelical churches across America during the present end-times great apostasy spoken of by Jesus as recorded in Matthew 24.

In Part III, we shall conclude this series by examining some of the recommendations of Dreher that, with modification, are worthy of consideration by Christians living in a progressively hostile and anti-Christian culture.

Larry G. Johnson

Sources:

[1] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option – A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, (New York: Penguin Books, 2017), p. 2.
[2] Alan Schreck, Ph.D., The Compact History of the Catholic Church, Revised Edition, (Cincinnati, Ohio: Servant Books, 2009), pp. 27-28.
[3] B. K. Kuiper, The Church in History, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1951, 1964), p. 45.
[4] Dreher, The Benedict Option, p. 53.
[5] Kuiper, The Church in History, pp. 93-94.
[6] Ibid., p. 92.
[7] Dreher, The Benedict Option, p.54.
[8] Ibid., p. 63.
[9] Ibid., pp. 63-64.
[10] Kuiper, The Church in History, p. 158.
[11] Dreher, The Benedict Option, pp. 58-59
[12] “Lectio Divina: Pray-Read Scripture,” http://www.prayerfoundation.org/lectio_divina.htm (accessed August 11, 2017).
[13] Ibid.
[14] LT Editors, “What your church needs to know before doing a Priscilla Shirer Study,” Lighthouse Trails Research Journal, Vol. 5-No. 4, (July-August 2017), 8-9.

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