On March 2, the Washington Post ran an illustration of a white flag next to the headline “Christians have lost the culture wars. Should they withdraw from the mainstream?”
Normally this type of article—especially from a news source perceived by some to be hostile to a Christian worldview—would cause outrage. In this case, though, the headline accurately captured the main idea of the book it was reviewing, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. This book has become a focal point of conversation within much of the evangelical community, sparking a lively debate about what the future of the church in America should look like.
WHAT IS “THE BENEDICT OPTION”?
“The Benedict Option” is named after St. Benedict, the sixth-century father of Western monastic life. Citing the collapse of Roman society along with the corruption of the church, St. Benedict retreated to the desert to found monastic orders that adhered to a daily rhythm of life designed to promote holiness.
Dreher used this historical moment as inspiration for his book, claiming we are in a similar place culturally. In Dreher’s view (heavily influenced by the works of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre), the United States has tipped beyond the ability of Christians to be faithful agents of cultural change.
In an article for Christianity Today Dreher says, “The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.”
For Dreher, this means a conscious restructuring of the Christian life around smaller, geographically-close communities that replicate the life of the early church or a monastic community. To live a modern “Benedictian” life is to create a vibrant and separate Christian subculture that lives in faithful opposition to a secular world.
EVANGELICAL CONCERN OVER THE CONCEPT OF “WITHDRAWAL”
The evangelical response to the book has varied, but many have found themselves largely agreeing with Dreher’s assessment of the problem, but ambivalent about his solution.
“While I agree with much of Dreher’s critique of culture, I can’t help but wonder if he is neglecting the cultural gains of our day, while papering over some of the dark aspects of the past,” said Executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University, Joshua Chawtraw. “How does this as a general strategy for the church fit…with Jesus’ commission to go to the nations or the missionary pattern described in Acts (in the midst of pagan cultures)? …many Christians will want to see a more robust engagement with Scripture to be convinced that the Benedict Option sets us on a course to fulfill our responsibilities to the world.”
Others find the very concept of a culture war—a battle to be won or lost—problematic. In the aforementioned Washington Post article by Christianity Today editor-at-large Katelyn Beaty, she says, “‘The Benedict Option’ is nothing if not embattled. Readers are left to wonder if military metaphors are the best way for Christians to think of relating to non-Christians—that is, their neighbors.”
THE ETHNOCENTRIC ERROR OF “THE BENEDICT OPTION”
Jemar Tisby, president and cofounder of the Reformed African American Network, sees a different problem with Dreher’s book: It ignores a segment of the evangelical community that has been experiencing this cultural ostracization all along.
“In offering the Benedict Option, Dreher almost completely overlooks the wisdom of Christians, especially people of color, who have always endured marginalization,” Tisby wrote in a recent blog post on his site. “The Benedict Option takes a running leap over the black church and lands on another continent in another millennium. Dreher goes back 1,500 years to find the Rule of St. Benedict when he could have gazed back over the past 400 years and looked across the street to the black church for guidance.”
Tisby’s point is informative: The Benedict Option is written from the perspective of a church that expects to be in a seat of cultural power, finds it has lost that seat, and is wondering how to get it back. For much of the evangelical Christian church—especially globally—this has never been the case.”
THE “BENEDICT OPTION” HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE
This isn’t the first time the evangelical American church has contemplated retreating from culture. Less than a century ago the church responded similarly both in backlash to the “social gospel” movement and as an outworking of a rapture/tribulation theology that believed the world was doomed to slowly become corrupted. In response to this cultural abdication, a theology of cultural engagement emerged, made popular by people such as Francis Schaeffer and, later, Chuck Colson.
However, author Andy Crouch, in a recent blog post, says the specific methodology Dreher is recommending is largely beside the point. He suggests the most important takeaway from Dreher’s book is that the American church has lost an effective model for discipleship, having become overly influenced by a materialistic, consumer culture.
In this, Crouch seems to capture the consensus critical response to Dreher’s book: People may not agree with his solution, but they agree there’s a problem in the evangelical church that needs addressing.
In her Washington Post piece, Beaty says, “Dreher laments that many contemporary churches act in attendees’ lives like a mall or a pep rally: God exists to make you feel happy and good about yourself… The Benedict Option calls Christians to root themselves in time-honored theology and spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, fasting and confession.”
This is where Dreher’s book is likely to find the most resonance, in a call for the church to remember that its ties to culture—politically, culturally and socially—may be important, but also need to be held loosely. For the evangelical church to find its place in society—whatever that may look like—it needs to remember its primary allegiance is first and foremost as a community centered around Christ.