Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Book Review: The Benedict Option

"The Benedict Option, is already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade." David Brooks, The New York Times

Thus claims one reviewer, one who admittedly is not exactly my idea of an authority on what would constitute an important religious book, although I will concede that it is widely discussed. In spite of praise from Brooks and others including people as disparate as Gabe Lyons, Carl Trueman and Charles Chaput, the "Archbishop" of Philadelphia, I have to disagree. As a virtually every-day reader of Rod Dreher's primary media outlet, The American Conservative (TAC), I have had his new book, The Benedict Option (BenOp), on my radar for the better part of the year. As a reader of TAC it has been hard not to as much of 2016 featured endless previews of the BenOp and virtually every essay Dreher published somehow made reference to the Benedict Option, no matter how strained the connection. In spite of this, I still planned on reading the BenOp as soon as I could get it from the library as it touches on a topic I have been very interested in for a long time, namely how does the church respond to a changed world post-Christendom America style, and also because a lot of people are reading it and talking about it. So as soon as it showed up at our library I got my copy and dug in.

Admittedly I did so as a "hostile reviewer". Based on what I had read from Dreher already, and if I am honest out of more than a little irritation at his endless promoting of the book followed by angry denunciations of anyone who didn't respond to it positively after it came out, I was expecting to have a lot I would disagree with. I was not wrong on that count. What I also found that I was not expecting was that in spite of the hype, The BenOp was just not a very good book. I have read well written books that I disagreed with before but the BenOp was not just full of assertions I disagreed with but it was just not terribly interesting. As I wrote previously: "Far from a manifesto for the way forward, the Benedict Option has all the signs of being a flash in the pan that sells well for a month thanks to the endless hype and then fades rapidly into obscurity. Dreher has a medievalist fetish that puts Renaissance fair attendees and jousting LARPers to shame and it just doesn't translate well into our contemporary culture and he seems pretty oblivious to other, more pertinent examples from church history that point more faithfully to the way forward.". Apart from just being a generally forgettable book, the BenOp has a number of serious flaws.

Dreher puts his book forth as the way forward for Christians. The subtitle of the book right on the cover proclaims: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. The problem with this assertion is that what is missing most blatantly from The BenOp is the Gospel. The BenOp doesn't start and stop with the most important thing, the Gospel itself, and it doesn't seem from my reading of Dreher that he has any understanding of the Gospel at all, which isn't surprising since he is an Eastern Orthodox convert from Roman Catholicism. Rather than focusing on the Gospel as the cornerstone of living for the Kingdom, the BenOp instead it focuses on religion, ritual, tradition, and "Christian culture" with Dreher never seeming to connect the dots and see that those things traditionally are not the solution, they are one of the root causes of the problem.

Dreher also is entirely dependent on a very shaky premise, that of continued religious liberty in America to provide legal cover for religious folks to practice the Benedict Option in the first place. On page 84, Dreher writes: "Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option. Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values.". So Dreher proposes one the one hand what amounts to a withdrawal from political advocacy (a characterization he would angrily reject but what so many readers keep coming away from the BenOp with) but on the other admits that without robust religious liberty the BenOp won't work. The future is somewhat murky but there is one thing that is certain, religious liberty protections in this country are going to get weaker, not stronger in the future, and any strategy that fails to recognize this reality is deeply flawed at the outset. Anyone who thinks that the militant progressive secularists are going to just leave us alone if we promise to retreat into our communes is naive.

The third major flaw in the BenOp is Dreher's advocacy of what amounts to a one-sided ecumenism. Dreher has admitted in essays for TAC that he doesn't really understand evangelicalism and his commentary on various Protestant issues makes this amply clear. That doesn't stop him from presuming to declare for Evangelical Christians and other Protestants that the monastic rules from a 6th century monk are the only way to survive the future. Of course he also lists the Protestant Reformation as being on par with the 1960's Sexual Revolution for the most harmful events in Western history (pg. 23) so he clearly doesn't think much of Protestantism. I understand that, he is Eastern Orthodox after all but his prescriptions for the church seem to include lots of "smells and bells" in the form of liturgies, rituals, etc. He even at one point suggests that "beauty and goodness" are our best evangelistic tools (pg. 117), in echoes of the apocryphal "Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words" nonsense attributed to Francis of Assisi. When you don't understand the Gospel I guess relying on "beauty and goodness" is your only resort.

In general, the Benedict Option is theologically confused and flaccid. Coming from the Eastern Orthodox tradition as Dreher does that is to be expected but someone who sees himself as a sort of post-Christendom Moses should take the time to flesh out the theological underpinnings and ramifications of what he is suggesting. I can't say I am surprised by the shallow theology, Dreher has in the past stated that he is not sure of the answer to the question of whether Muslims worship the same God as Christians and has never given it any thought and more recently described a Muslim reader as his brother apparently based on the Muslim reader agreeing with the Benedict Option. In other essays and several times in his book Dreher praises the "community" found in the mormon cult, including the "home teacher" program where each adult man is assigned to other adult men to check up on them regularly (pg. 135). As someone who came out of mormonism I can say without hesitation that their "community" is rigidly enforced and based on cultic control practices and is not something we ought to be emulating. To summarize, Dreher thinks that the Protestant Reformation was a disaster on par with the Sexual Revolution but he adores mormonism and feels a brotherly kinship with Muslims.

In closing, the Benedict Option is a generally uninteresting book based on a flawed premise and with more red flags that a May Day parade in Paris. Christians should be looking to the future and preparing for what that will bring but this is the wrong path. Instead of looking to a 6th century monk, we ought to be looking at the 16th century Anabaptists who thrived amid persecution. Many historic Anabaptist groups already practice intentional, close communities like the Amish, the Hutterites, the Bruderhof and others. They don't warrant a mention in the Benedict Option but mormons do. That kind of tells you why this is precisely the wrong path for the church. Many of us have been having these conversations long before the Benedict Option came on the scene and part of having a discerning mind about these questions is to be able to examine and when necessary reject flawed pathways. The Benedict Option is one of those paths that Christians need to reject.

(See also:  The Benedict Option And The Future Of The Church: We Should Look Back But Where And When Is The Real Question and The Anabaptist Option > The Benedict Option for starters)

1 comment:

dle said...

My mono-word review after confessing not to have read the book at all was "Whatever." You seem to have come to a similar conclusion after a more intellectually rigorous evaluation. Honestly, I find that both humorous and confirming, as it only reinforces that there isn't much "there" there. And that's sad, because I thought Dreher's Crunchy Cons was a bullseye. Maybe Dreher lost something after his RCC to GO move. Or maybe the prolonged build-up to BO's release just wore us all out.