The Benedict Option: Book Review

The Benedict Option is a deeply disappointing book.

There are two reasons for that. First, it promises a lot, nothing less than a diagnosis of contemporary culture, and a prescription for Christian health, both individually and corporately. Delivering on that promise would be enormously helpful! Second, it has received wildly positive reviews in some quarters, most recently by Steve MacAlpine (whose blog article I will look at in a separate post) who suggested it might be the Christian book of the year for 2017!

I’m far from convinced.

The title expresses the central thesis of the book - that we have entered a new phase in cultural history (“darkening days … a time of decision”), that requires a new approach to discipleship, one that appropriates the monasticism of Benedictine for a modern age, adopting a lay equivalent of a “rule for living”. The first chapter lays out the texture of this cultural crisis, the second its history, the third the Benedictine alternative, and then the following 7 chapters spell out what that might look like in the 21st century.

It’s all sadly unconvincing.

The first chapter, ‘The great flood’, seeks to make the case that the depravity of the culture has reached a saturation point where Christians have little option but to “stop fighting the flood … and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes”. Drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, the claim is made that we have entered a period of barbarism, where “Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes - they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human”. Although there is a note of mission, (“be for the world as Christ meant us to be”), it is overwhelmed by the negativity, alarmism and separatism of the metaphor (“we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training”).

With the help of Charles Taylor, the second chapter lays out an intellectual history of the problem, running through the late middle ages, renaissance and reformation, enlightenment, and industrial and sexual revolutions. The third chapter lays out the detail of life in the Monastery of St Benedict in Norcia, Italy, and the intent behind them.

This all seems to me to be a lament for Christendom, in which Dreher is so immersed that he doesn’t even realise it. What Dreher describes is new for the USA, or at least some parts of the USA, but is business as usual for us in Australia. It’s not a flood, just a standard change in the weather. Some scientists judges princes etc do use their professional power for what we might call culturally destructive outcomes, but others don’t. The sense of conspiracy and catastrophe is palpable.

Its also one-sided.

What Dreher doesn’t mention is the benefits of our current cultural situation (see for example, the stimulating Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The origins of Western Liberalism, on human rights); nor the theological roots of it. In his book Preaching, Tim Keller does a much better job of understanding and appropriating Charles Taylor. For example, he comments that the turn inwards to expressive individualism, which is so characteristic of our age, and which lies behind the sexual revolution and especially the LGBTI+ movement, is actually a product of Christian teaching - namely, that the core of a human being is the heart, not social status or role, not family or nation, not social expectation or conformity. It is out of the heart that sin - and faith, and holiness of life - proceed, and Jesus taught us that. And it is this duality - both the cultural decline and the cultural connection (or what is called common grace) that marks this moment as one for even more hopeful, as well as cunning, mission; not for panic and withdrawal.

Because being spooked is characteristic of Dreher’s project.

The chapter on a new kind of politics (ch 4) is especially strange to Australian ears, since it would never occur to most of us to think that “we could turn back the tide of aggressive 1960’s liberalism by voting for conservative Republicans” (or their local equivalent). Politics will only ever follow culture, not lead it. And if the political diagnosis is strange, the prescription - fight for religious freedom - is even stranger in a book which calls for a “radical new way of doing politics”.

Chapter 5 (“A church for all seasons”) is even shriller. The call is to “change your ways”, stop “being normal”. How? By “rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our lives on the church community and tightening church discipline”, each of which then form a section of the chapter. This is all completely pedestrian. Similarly, the chapter on the idea of a Christian village enjoins us to turn our home into a “domestic monastery”, make sure your kids have a good peer group, and live close to other members of the church, because “church can’t just be the place you go on Sunday’s - it must become the centre of your life”, after which the Mormons are held up as a model of community living! It’s all a bit strange, even disturbing, and reflects an overdone, and essentially Roman Catholic ecclesiology, which ultimately runs the risk of entering on the church and de-centering Christ.

The focus on education (ch 7) naturally follows, along with the call that “it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system”, and turn to homeschooling, or start their own schools. What’s interesting is that the curriculum is to be classical Western Great Books based, because “Christianity emerged from the confluence of Hebrew religion, Greek philosophy and Roman law”. Mmmm, not quite sure about that!

The final three chapters - on work (Christians may have to do more manual, blue collar jobs because of conscience, but that’s OK, because work like that assists the “integration of body and soul”), on sex (which again, hankers for a pre-modern imagination in which “sex was filled with cosmic meaning” and calls for a fight on pornography as well as urging parents to take up more fully their responsibilities for the sex education of their kids) and technology (watch out for the internet, practice digital fasting and take smartphones away from kids, as though prohibition was ever the way towards maturity), rehearse the same themes.

The relentless fearfulness and hopelessness is the strangest, and most disappointing, thing. Yes, there are particular and pressing challenges to living in late modernity; yes, they impact on all the points at which culture and family intersect; but no, the Christian way has never been to either try to take over the culture through political power (the strategy that lies in the background of The Benedict Option) or to withdraw. It’s hard to “live such honourable lives among the pagans” when you’ve left the world behind, but that is always our calling.

Years ago a friend introduced me to the poem Said Hanrahan, a fabulous piece of Australian bush poetry by John O’Brien (the pen name of Roman Catholic priest, Patrick Joseph Hartigan). It is absolutely worth a read. It perfectly sums up the mood of The Benedict Option. We can do better.

Andrew Katay

(Originally published on Andrew Katay's Facebook page)