In our modern age, living one’s life as a traditional Christian may seem next to impossible. One can no longer be an out and proud Christian who is fearless in spreading their beliefs. Rather, it is quite the opposite, as our current American culture, which has been hijacked by militant secularism, ambiguous morals, and a desire to do what feels good over what feels right has led to Christian practices and teachings being pushed to the fringes of society and condemned by our contemporary culture as bigoted or intolerant. The disinterest and failure of many moderate “Christians” to speak out and defend their faith has compounded these circumstances and lead to a mass decline in church attendance and acceptance of the many changes being forced upon Christians of all denominations. Yet in this seemingly endless abyss of darkness lies a small but optimistic ray of light in the form of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation. Rod Dreher is a senior editor at “The American Conservative” and is an Eastern Orthodox convert from the Catholic Church. In his book, Dreher lays out a plan for orthodox Christians (aka traditional) to preserve their faith, beliefs, and overall way of life using past practices from ancient Christian communities to lay the foundations for a truly counter cultural society. The Benedict Option not only unites practicing Christians to a common cause but also gives a sense of direction for those who may feel lost or abandoned in the truly post Christian times that we live in.
The Benedict Option is in many ways both a historical account and a manifesto for orthodox Christians. The book’s central premise is to call on devout Christians to see that the current society they live in is working against them. In post-Christian America, man is losing his attachment to God, family, and town, and it is only a matter of time before it is impossible to freely express traditional Christian beliefs on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and matters of sexuality. As such, those serious about their faith must begin to make drastic but necessary changes in their lives if they’re going to preserve both their religion and their way of life. The name of the title of the book, and the plan detailed within it, are based off of an ancient Christian known as St. Benedict, who created a new community of Christians on the fringes of society during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. This political decline created a massive power vacuum and saw the values of the conqueror's reign supreme, ushering in an age of moral degeneracy and political corruption. Benedict remained in a cave in the wilderness for three years before being offered the position of abbot at a local monastery. He went on to found twelve more monasteries, and created what was known as “The Rule of St. Benedict” to govern the monks. However, this text was also meant to be used by devout laymen. This Rule is essentially a guideline for living in a Christian community, and it provides directions for how to live a life that coincides with the teachings of Christ and honors Him through one’s actions. Dreher’s plan involves using a modified version of this Rule for modern traditional Christians to follow in creating new communities that preserve the Christian faith and inspire a renewed sense of devotion within new generations.
There are three major reasons why Dreher feels Christians need to take up this task. The first is that as society has become more secular, orthodox Christian beliefs on many issues have been deemed unacceptable by mainstream society, and are being used to push Christians out of the public forum and many prominent professions, such as the sciences and academics. Dreher provides plenty of examples of this disgraceful trend that is plaguing both America and the West entirely. For instance, the legal profession in Canada is conspiring to ban law graduates from Trinity Western University from practicing their profession. Their reason being that this school, which is a private liberal arts Christian institution, doesn’t completely file in line with many LGBT issues (182). The stance that society has taken is one of no compromises: you are either with us, or against us, and if you are the latter, you are no longer welcome. Secondly, although roughly 75% of Americans call themselves Christian, the reality is that many follow what is described in The Benedict Option as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”, which advocates the existence of God and the afterlife but discards or overlooks the many harsh or difficult teachings of Christ in favor of what makes one feel happy and secure. Adding insult to injury is the reality that churches are no longer the vibrant communities they once were, and can no longer bring together communities like they used to. And thirdly, modern politics, on both the Left and the Right, don’t represent interests of orthodox Christians. The civility that once controlled the exchange of ideas in political discourse has been usurped by a mindset of no middle ground and no negotiations between those who have disagreements on issues. Dreher demonstrates that the Left seeks to diminish if not wipe out Christianity in the West and the old school Religious Right is no longer viable nor relevant. Christians don’t have anyone to trust or rely on to ensure the visibility of religious devotion within political dialogue. And although Trump may have won, someone so “vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised” as him is only going to delay the problem, not solve it (79). Trump’s behavior has had a profound effect. Not only has he not represented the Presidency this way, but now, like a disease, this behavior is now present in many other politicians, causing politics to be incredibly contentious and depraved.
The most positive aspect of this book, apart from its wealth of information and truly unique insight, is the set of steps laid out that could help lay down the foundations for this new type of community. While taking up these tasks would indeed require a great amount of change and adjustment that may be painful at first, they would potentially be for the best in creating and preserving environments where future generations can openly practice their faith free from fear of repercussions. Within the home, these would include setting up daily prayer and Bible study sessions, fasting when appropriate, limiting technology use (especially to reduce exposure to pornography), and in certain cases, homeschooling children with Christian values, especially when it pertains to matters of sex and living as faith-filled Christians. In terms of the greater community, Dreher encourages readers to take action to build solidarity with like minded believers. This involves living in close proximity to a church and alongside other faithful Christians, supporting Christian businesses, and encouraging hobbies that don’t rely on social media or mindless entertainment. Essentially, they are encouraged to live their faith in plain sight, but also separate from our mainstream, atheistic culture. One idea that intrigued me the most was the concept of restructuring Christian education to form a Classical Model, which focuses on teaching the Great Works and instilling critical thinking skills and complex theological understanding within its students from a young age. In fact, a personal visit of mine to a Classical and Christian college is what inspired me to return to the Catholic faith and work harder to be more true to the Church’s teachings.
Almost all of the ideas suggested in this book are much easier said than done, and would require a great amount of work to achieve. Most Christians, even the most faithful, rely heavily on many conveniences of our modern culture and getting them to abandon many of these things, even gradually, will be an immense challenge. Distancing oneself from technology will certainly be the most difficult task to achieve. I use technology (especially my iPhone) quite regularly and find it difficult to be away from it for an extended period of time. And while there are plenty of truly devout Christians out there, many of them also live comfortable lifestyle, and getting them to change their current lifestyle to follow one that is more aesthetic and secluded will be quite challenging. Raising children in this type of lifestyle is another issue. While a Classical and Christian Education is all well and good, it will be sometime before a truly Benedictine community in the U.S will ever be achieved, and our society still demands practical skills in order to make an income and to provide for our families. Many Christians will face hardship in the future if we don’t recognize the path that society is on, which will make some of these actions likely necessary in one form or another in the future.
While The Benedict Option is highly ambitious, it is an important work that every orthodox Christian should read. It will certainly not revive Medieval Christendom anytime soon, but what it will do is cause readers to see that modern society does not recognize or support their faith life. It will inspire one to take a second look at their current lifestyle and whether or not it is helping maintain the Faith, as it has for me. This book is a wake up call that all Christians need to hear, and it is a critical message, as the time when we will need to act urgently to save our Faith and our civilization may be sooner than we realize.