The Benedict Option
Over the past few months I’ve become fascinated by the whole idea of the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option is the idea that Christians, or at least conservative Christians, should withdraw from mainstream culture and create their own counterculture.
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The thinking behind the Option is fairly simple: American culture has become completely hostile to traditional Christianity. Therefore Christians should withdraw or disengage from it and seek an alternative.
The Benedict Option’s creator, American Conservative editor Rod Dreher, thinks that we are facing a new Dark Age, so Christians must emulate St. Benedict. For those of you unfamiliar with him, Benedict of Nursia was the Catholic monk who founded the monastic movement that helped preserve Christianity and classical culture and rebuild civilization in Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in that region in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. He was also one of the true founders of what we think of as the Roman Catholic Church.
Whether or not we are facing a new Dark Age is debatable, but the popularity of the Benedict Option does reveal a paradigm shift in American attitudes about Christianity and culture. Here is what I think it means:
- American views of Christianity have changed radically in the last 60 or 70 years. The popular view of Christianity in the United States today is that it is a spiritual state of being in a personal relationship between a person and God or Jesus. The idea is that Christianity exists outside the culture and day-to-day life. It is separate from things like art, economics, literature, and politics. Traditionalists like Dreher, on the other hand, view Christianity in a cultural context. They feel that art, economics, literature, politics, etc., must have a Christian basis. Christianity must be the focus of day-to-day life, in their view. Their view was the majority view back before World War II, but it is now the minority.
- Individuals like Dreher reject traditional American individualism, at least in respect to religion. They view Christianity as a communal affair, a relationship between God and the community or society as a whole rather than a relationship between God and an individual.
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- Traditionalists that focus on the cultural aspects of Christianity, such as the liturgy and church music, feel increasingly out of place in modern American society.
- Some conservative Christians are questioning their commitment to America itself. Here’s how Dreher described the philosophy behind the option in a recent, rather frightening blog post:
- “That orthodox Christianity is in fundamental conflict with the American liberal order, a conflict that is radical, and cannot be resolved;
- That orthodox Christians are a distinct minority in the United States, and that their convictions will make them increasingly be seen not just as dissenters, but as enemies of the common good;
- That uncritically accepting the liberal order that has now emerged means giving up on some core Christian convictions.”
A blog called Notes from Common-place Book goes even further:
- “The American Way of Life is—in every real sense of the word—a religion all its own. We are its willing disciples, our altar is the Free Market System, and we worship the trinity of consumerism, nationalism and democratization. A False God to be sure, but nevertheless one with its own unique rituals and sacraments. The American Dream is but a replacement religion, not a complimentary ‘lifestyle.’ If one is contemplating the Benedict Option, I think the idea of being a ‘good American,’ as that term is commonly understood, will have to be jettisoned. In fact, one may well have to be a decidedly bad American.”
Sadly enough, this kind of thinking might bring about the kind of persecution that Christians are worried about by demonstrating that they are not good Americans. In the past, that has led to Congressional investigations, prison, lynching, and even concentration camps here in the United States. These thinkers might be handing some future Joe McCarthy the ammunition he needs for an anti-Christian witch hunt.
- Dreher is acknowledging the failure of modern American political Christianity. Over the past 60 years we saw two widespread Christian activist movements that attempted to spark spiritual and moral renewal in the United States through political activity. The first of these was the Civil Rights movement, which came out of the black churches. The other was the so-called Religious Right, which came out of the evangelical churches. Even though the tactics and objectives of the movements were different, the ultimate goal was the same: national transformation through Christian values. In this, the Civil Rights Movement was a partial success—it demolished institutional racism but failed to create a civil culture based upon Martin Luther King’s notions of social justice and pacifism. The Religious Right elected a lot of Republicans to office but failed miserably in its efforts to create or recreate Christian civil culture. Both movements survive as pale shadows of themselves that serve as get out the vote mechanisms for the two major political parties. The lesson here, I suppose, is that politics always corrupts the church no matter how noble the motives.
- The Benedict Option is not very well explained; it is more of an idea or a concept than a movement. On some level, Dreher’s Benedict Option reminds me of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop scheme for a super-fast next generation transportation system. Like Musk, he is throwing out an idea for others to complete. He freely admits that he does not know what the Benedict Option will look like or even if it will work, so he hopes somebody else will work it out.
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- There are some important questions that Dreher is not addressing here.
- For example, does the Benedict Option require the rejection of modern technology as the Amish do or the rejection of capitalism and individualism as the Catholic Worker movement does?
- What will the Christian involvement in society be? Will Christians have to forego military service and public office and avoid jobs like police officers or public school teachers in the future?
- Does it mean a complete break with modernity like the Amish or an adaptation on some level?
- Do Christians have to withdraw from society completely, or can they function as a minority like the Sikhs in India and, for that matter, America by making themselves useful to society?
- Should Christians create alternative communities or retreat into some sort of redoubt?
- What about democracy? Is it incompatible with a Christian culture on some level?
- Should Christians be involved in politics or not? If so, to what level? Should they just vote to protect their rights, or should they take a more active role?
One thing is certain however; the popularity of the Benedict Option shows that American Christianity is about to change beyond recognition. The church of the future is going to look very different from traditional American notions of religion and faith.