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Before “The Benedict Option,” there was just Rod Dreher and his new book’s eponymous idea. But come March 14, the American Con­ser­v­ative blogger promises a full expla­nation of the murky term with “a strategy for Chris­tians in a post-Christian nation.”

Although Dreher delivers, his strategy tempts his audience to believe Chris­tians can only survive modernity’s depravity by cre­ating a “par­allel polis,” a spir­itual utopia where they can live undis­turbed.

Dreher wedges his argument between alarming images — first a flood that drowns unpre­pared Chris­tians and then a sim­i­larly destructive earth­quake — and sup­ports his pro­posal with a dan­ger­ously nos­talgic view of history. Like a post­modern Raphael Hythloday from St. Thomas More’s “Utopia,” Dreher con­cludes that since society will not heed the wisdom of Chris­tianity, Chris­tians must forsake trying to influence society at all.

Years before Dreher wrote “The Benedict Option,” he began throwing around the idea that the father of European monas­ticism, St. Benedict of Nursia, had aban­doned fifth century Rome because he felt the society was too corrupt to support him as a Christian any longer. That, com­bined with a little rhetoric from Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 “After Virtue,” in which the Scottish political philosopher calls for “another — doubtless very dif­ferent — St. Benedict” for the modern world, gave Dreher the phrase “the Benedict Option,” appar­ently meaning that Chris­tians should make a spir­itual retreat from the secular world.

Dreher ignited debates in every Christian con­ser­v­ative corner, from the dorky tables in the cafe­teria up to the hal­lowed lobby of The Her­itage Foun­dation, over just how far and just how spir­itual this retreat should be. Some said the Benedict Option was a political call for Chris­tians to remove them­selves from society entirely. When pressed on the issue, Dreher himself would say he was only reminding Chris­tians to put prayer and work at the center of their lives.

Regardless of the term’s meaning and origin, Dreher would have done well to actually read Pope Gregory the Great’s fifth-century biog­raphy of Benedict, which nowhere says that he became a monastic because society failed him. All we know about the hermit of Nursia is that he answered a vocation to serve God in the wilderness.

But with his new book, Dreher attempts to put all debate about the Benedict Option to rest by claiming all Chris­tians must follow Benedict’s example — according to the Dreher version of Benedict. But those apoc­a­lyptic images and the con­tra­dicting argu­ments — like a blogger who advises his readers not to use the internet — turn a well-inten­tioned book into a bump­tious dis­aster.

At the outset Dreher declares, “The culture war that began with the Sexual Rev­o­lution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian Con­ser­v­a­tives.” He then leads his readers on a tour of history — which he envi­sions as a great battle for control over chrono­logical nar­rative which Chris­tians started losing in the High Middle Ages when the Fran­ciscan friar William of Ockham divorced the tran­scendent and material worlds with nom­i­nalism. Chris­tians lost even more during the Renais­sance and the Protestant Ref­or­mation, when humanist thinkers and evil popes made the church worldly and weak. Finally, Chris­tianity melted into a wax of sen­timent with the advent of modernity, and any power it might have held was replaced with the ideas of Marx and Niet­zsche.

Dreher diag­noses the majority of Chris­tians today as “Moral­istic Ther­a­peutic Deists,” sus­cep­tible to the leanings of an over-encroaching secular culture. He also tears into the con­ser­v­ative project — espe­cially Reagan and latter-day Repub­licans — and blames failing Chris­tians by only trying to safe­guard pro-life issues and the integrity of the tra­di­tional family.

His solution: Chris­tians must abandon ship and create a utopia within the bounds of American society, but dis­tinctly removed from it through active prayer and a faith-based com­munity.

It all sounds so simple, pure even — if you buy into Dreher’s his­torical nar­rative. For Dreher, the world is an evil place and history a lost battle for Chris­tians. And although he insists he doesn’t want to “turn back the clock,” by denouncing his own society as failed, he takes a gloomy position where one bad thinker — Marx, for instance — forces everyone to think in his terms from then onward. If that’s the case, the sometime writer for The Atlantic Sam Kriss is correct: because Marx thought, we are all Marxists.  

This view of history is unworkable and has never been the tra­dition of sane Chris­tians. In “The City of God,” the early Christian thinker Augustine asserts that the great society of his time, Rome, fell because its stewards failed to take care of it. But he does not assert — as Dreher wrongly con­cludes — that Rome was a society sep­arate and dis­tinct from Chris­tianity. In Augustine’s world, Chris­tians live in Rome, and they face a con­stant battle to care for Rome, while remaining cog­nizant of heaven above. All cities of men exist as earthly estates por­tioned over to the best safe­guards — Chris­tians — on their journey to the eternal city of God.

So in sounding the alarm for the end of society, Dreher posi­tions himself not as a new Benedict, or even as a new John the Baptist, crying out in the wilds of Louisiana to alert Chris­tians of the coming peril. He best fits the role of Hythloday, the speaker of non­sense who pro­poses in Thomas More’s 1516 dia­logue “Utopia” that mis­an­thropy is the key to sal­vation.

Hythloday argues that since man so often falls and since rulers rarely listen to the advice of good men, it is best just to give up on society. More sym­pa­thizes with Hythloday in the dia­logue, but as a man who par­tic­i­pated in the highest strata of society and even tried to raise a king to be a vir­tuous man, he cannot agree with the embit­tered Hythloday.

More com­pares Hythloday and his vision of Utopia to a man who is reciting a great tragic speech of Sophocles when he should be acting in a Plautus comedy. His point is that we’re never born into the role we want to play, but trying to create our own reality won’t do our­selves or our fellow men any good. It’s like aban­doning a ship because we cannot control the wind.

The same could be said of Dreher. While the ora et labora sec­tions of “The Benedict Option” could strengthen the faith of Chris­tians every­where, the apoc­a­lyptic tone in which Dreher writes about the rest of his plan dif­fuses the potency of his book.

Crying out about the end of the world goes against man’s role as steward over society, even if his society is dirtied by sin. But instead of retreating in them­selves or cre­ating a par­allel polis, Chris­tians should be taking pos­itive ini­tia­tives to influence the next gen­er­ation of common people — who are the modern day princes — to govern with justice and virtue.  

These sorts of pro­grams were started by the Romans and have not been attempted in civil society with any real effort since the Renais­sance. Those who imple­mented them under­stood that, in the end, there can be no suc­cessful society with a secular state dis­tinct from a Christian enclave. A good society is led by men who are trying to help others live vir­tu­ously, while trying to serve God them­selves.

We are not waiting for a Benedict, but for another — and hope­fully very similar — Thomas More.

  • Dave Edwards

    “His solution: Chris­tians must abandon ship and create a utopia within the bounds of American society, but dis­tinctly removed from it through active prayer and a faith-based com­munity.”
    Uhh, I still need to read the book, but based on Dreher’s blog, this statement is not what the Benedict Option is at all.

  • Abouna Raphael

    Rod is pre­cisely calling on believers to be stewards of what is good and true and beau­tiful and to not be seduced by the false promise of pol­itics. We are “in the world, but not of it.” We must be good cit­izens, as you are correct, a good society results from Chris­tians serving God and helping others to live vir­tu­ously. But, it starts in our homes and in our parishes. If the greater society is no longer helping but hin­dering the pursuit of the good the true and the beau­tiful, then we must by all means withdraw and focus on the one thing needful, lest there no longer be any­thing of value left for the culture.

    The Kingdom of God must be pursued first if the wisdom of the Epistle to Dio­gnetus be true: “The Church is to society as the soul is to the body.”

  • Jake

    One thing we know for certain about Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, the one thing he tells us over and over again on his blog, is that every single person wanting to know what his Benedict Option really is must first buy and read his book about it. That’s the only way. There are no shortcuts around that trans­action. If you haven’t yet bought and read his book, you can’t really know what his Benedict Option is. His book is the only gateway to the defin­itive truth of the matter. Either buy his book and get the full inside story only revealed there, or just forget about it.

    • CaptSmith415

      The problem with this article is that I don’t think the “reviewer” actually read the book.

  • CaptSmith415

    What hap­pened to St. Thomas More? He was suc­cessful in changing the king’s mind and restoring England to the Catholic faith, right? Weren’t Catholics the most influ­ential people up to the 19th century in English pol­itics?