No matter where one stands on the American political spectrum, we can all agree that anxiety is running high. Conservative commentator Rod Dreher has offered a way through these anxious days with his new book The Benedict Option: Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation .
Following the lead of ethical theorist Alistair MacIntyre, Dreher says that what is needed is a new and different Saint Benedict. Christians, he says, need to pull together into formative communities to wait out the coming Dark Ages of American culture. Dreher tells a pessimistic story of American society. Pointing to the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, he says that conservative Christians have clearly lost the culture wars. What is more, Dreher warns that religious liberties will come under increasing scrutiny by politicians of all stripes. Even morally conservative politicians will erode such liberties under economic pressure.
Conceding these culture wars for Dreher is not so much about denial or a rallying cry to redouble efforts. Rather, it’s simply an emerging reality. This new reality is the result of a centuries-long process begun with the Reformation and the rise of the Enlightenment. In the second chapter, Dreher tells the story of religious decline from the 15th century on. Though Luther and Descartes never set out to undermine religious authority, the result of the collective shifts is such that religion has become a matter for individuals and not a society. Church has become a collection of individuals rather than a community.
The Benedict Option, based on the importance of the Rule of Saint Benedict in the 6th century, is a way for contemporary Christians to imagine and live into their faith within a dominant culture that is not of their own making. Historians have long said that Benedictine monasteries were the lifeboat for Christian culture in the so-called Dark Ages. For Dreher, Christian communities now must form tight bonds while not withdrawing from the world, so that these communities can save Christianity again.
Much of Dreher’s argument sounds familiar to the Brethren, who have tried to maintain our identity as disciples over the centuries. Practices such as forming close community bonds around the church, cultivating a strong, mutually supportive work ethic, and even living as marginalized people all resonate with our tradition.
One thing plagues Dreher’s work, however, even for all the wisdom he has gleaned from the Benedictine tradition. He is clearly a culture warrior at heart. His story is one of impending doom. In fact, the assertion of a new Dark Ages assumes the very logic of the Enlightenment itself, which saw the days of the Middle Ages as a decline in civility. Proper civilization, for Dreher, is when the church is at the top of the social ladder. Though he implores Christians to welcome the coming days of societal conflict, he believes the dominant culture should be Christian.
But scripture tells us that it is God who is redeeming the world, not the church. History has shown that when the church views itself as the top of the cultural and political hierarchy few things go well, for society or the church. Rather, as Jesus said, the faithful are like yeast in the bread, small in comparison but significant in results. Or like a lamp on a stand—insignificant in the vast darkness, but shining nonetheless.
Christians have been practicing a kind of Benedict Option long before Dreher coined the concept. Groups like Rutba House in Durham or the Simple Way in Philadelphia have formed thick, yet porous Christian community for well over a decade. Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis has done so even longer. Each of these communities has done this without nostalgia for a time when the church dominated American culture, and without longing for a day when the church will once again define society. These communities and many more have developed practices of patient witness to the coming reign of God.
That is what Benedict himself set out to do. He was not building a kind of lifeboat for civilization, but a community of disciples “clothed in faith and the performance of good works” with the gospel for their guide who “deserve to see [God] who has called us to his kingdom” (from Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict).
Joshua Brockway is co-coordinator of Congregational Life Ministries and director of spiritual life and discipleship for the Church of the Brethren.