Setting themselves apart
The Tablet15 June 2017 | by Christopher Jamison
Christian counter-culturesAmerican society has become so hostile to orthodox Christian principles that the faithful have no option but to walk away and create new communities. This is the arresting proposition at the centre of an apocalyptic book that has been generating many creative conversations in the United States. The American critic David Brooks has called it “the most discussed and most important theological book of the decade”.
Why people have to walk away and what they must do to create these new communities is the subject of this breathless call to action. But it is the title that author Rod Dreher has chosen for his book that immediately struck me: The Benedict Option. Why Benedict? To use an old legal expression that captures something of the book, Dreher believes that the Benedictine tradition can be prayed in aid of Christians today.
Dreher, 50, is a journalist and tireless blogger for the website of The American Conservative magazine. He was raised as a Methodist in the small town of St Francisville, Louisiana, before converting to Catholicism in his twenties. In 2006 he left the Catholic Church in disgust at the sexual abuse scandal. He and his wife are now members of the Orthodox Church. Dreher tells us that he is “a committed conservative” who wanted to raise his child “by traditionalist Christian principles” but found that “fellow conservatives … can undermine the thing that I, as a traditionalist, considered the most important institution to conserve: the family”.
I was bemused as to the meaning of all these categories: in what way does commitment to being a conservative differ from just being conservative? And why “traditionalist” rather than traditional? I presumed that American readers would know the answer to these questions and pressed on. But when a paragraph began with the compound word “Post-Obergefell” I had to reach for Google. I discovered that this refers to the landmark decision of the US Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell v Hodges in 2015 to extend the right to marry to same-sex couples. For Dreher, this showed that the culture war that began in the 1960s “has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives”.
This claim highlights the underlying assumption of The Benedict Option: for all the constitutional separation of Church and State, the US has until recently had Christianity as its de facto established religion. Dreher’s thesis is that American society is no longer Christian, so American Christians must now reassess how they live out their faith. And his starting point for his reassessment is the last sentence of Alasdair MacIntyre’s celebrated study of Western ethics, After Virtue: “We await a new – doubtless very different – St Benedict.”
The first chapter, “The Great Flood”, sets the whole of Dreher’s book within the context of the “end times” and this sweeping style continues in the second chapter’s analysis of “The Roots of the Crisis”. The reader is marched swiftly on a philosophical journey from the fourteenth to the twentieth century, showing how we lost our way. He describes it in a memorable sentence: “The long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning has delivered us to a place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection.”
But at this point, like the cavalry, the Rule of Benedict sweeps in to the rescue. Dreher’s interpretation of the Rule comes via the recently refounded monastery of St Benedict in Norcia, Benedict’s birthplace. The insights he gleaned from interviews with the monks there guides the next chapter, which offers a summary of some of the Rule’s key points.
We get to the heart of The Benedict Option in the fourth chapter, “A New Kind of Christian Politics”. Dreher is convinced that Christians will never be able to restore orthodox Christian values to society through campaigning or lobbying in the public sphere. The only realistic political aim for Christians is to ensure that they are not coerced into cooperation with evil. He explains that he has been driven to this conclusion by the way that LGBT activism has made it at times impossible for those he calls orthodox Christians to oppose gay marriage in public. In the United Kingdom this was exemplified by the “gay cake” controversy. A Northern Irish family bakery refused to accept a customer’s order for a wedding cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage, claiming that their right to religious freedom entitled them to refuse. But the bakers were convicted of breaking equality law.
Protecting spaces in which Christians are free to dissent from the prevailing social values is Dreher’s only mainstream political goal. His hope is that this will leave room for communities that will live apart, as the paradigm of a new politics. He cites the example of the Eastern European dissidents who created underground communities in the time of Communism and claims that the creation of an alternative order is the new politics just as a monastery creates a different way of life.
But this promising line of argument falls flat once Dreher describes what the “anti-political politics of the Benedict Option” will actually look like: “Turn off the TV. Put the smart phones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbours.” This hardly constitutes a monastic lifestyle, or a serious political alternative: it sounds more like Theresa May on a walking holiday.
Dreher continues more boldly: “Start a church or a group within a church. Open a classical Christian school or join or strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden …” and so on, listing splendid suggestions for community and voluntary activities that millions of people already take part in, both Christians and non-Christians alike. After a promising start, as soon as you try it out, Dreher’s Benedict Option crumbles like old fabric.
What fills the remaining six chapters is a mixture of insights drawn from many sources, including the Rule. Dreher wants to “draw on the virtues in the Rule to change the way Christians approach politics, church, family, community, education, our jobs, sexuality and technology”. There is plenty of sound advice here, but also some oddities: he is critical of information technology but keen on Marshall McLuhan; he is in favour of parishes excommunicating (his word) disobedient members; he conflates Puritan views of vocation with the Rule’s view of work. This last illustrates the problem with this book: Dreher is a chef in a kitchen with a large box of ingredients marked “Rule of Benedict”, but alongside it are many other ingredients, so that by the time he has put everything into the pot, consumers cannot be sure what they are eating.
My sense is that the basic ingredients of The Benedict Option are those opening elements that so bemused me: committed, conservative, traditionalist principles. St Benedict is not so much prayed in aid as used as a marketing tool for Dreher’s convictions.
What The Benedict Option offers is traditionalism rather than tradition. One of the realities of the past 50 years or so has been the collapse in the West of all “total cultures”, that is, ways of life that educated a person from the cradle to the grave within one set of values. No religious tradition now holds sway over the culture within which Western people grow up and live out their lives. Traditionalists are those who believe that in this situation the only way to preserve the tradition is to create distinctive communities that set themselves apart. The Bruderhof and the Amish come to mind – but it is a mistake to read the Benedictine tradition in this way.
Throughout his Rule, Benedict alludes approvingly to the fourth-century desert fathers and mothers who were the first Christian monks and nuns. These men and women, like Dreher, wanted to set themselves apart to live out the Gospel more intensely. But what they fled was not a secular society; what they fled was the new totally Christian empire that Constantine was creating. They wanted to create communities where faith was chosen not inherited. This is the same spirit that animates Benedict. The monastery is not a counterculture but a privileged place for those who wish to have a deep formation in this celibate way of living the Gospel.
A monastery is a place of consecration and communion at the service of Christ’s great commission to make disciples of all nations. This missionary spirit is exemplified by Augustine of Canterbury, who left his monastery to preach the Gospel in Britain. And even within the monastery itself secular cultures and sciences have constantly been integrated into the Rule’s rhythm: calligraphy is never mentioned in the Rule but with that skill monks saved pagan classical texts for the future. A monastery is not of the world but it is in the world. While it is obvious that Dreher is not of the world, it is less clear just how much Dreher wants to be in the world.
New ways of being the Church at the local level are urgently needed, as Dreher helps us to see. But his solution to the question of how this might be done mixes the Rule with too many of his own political and social convictions. The “Dreher option” will appeal to some but there is still room for a new – and doubtless very different – Benedict option.
Christopher Jamison is the former Abbot of Worth. His books include Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life.