Rod Dreher is one of today’s best known commentators on religion. A devout believer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Dreher has been on my radar for at least ten years and I make it a point to read everything by him I can find. He understands the radical shifts happening in the modern world and has a sense of urgency about Christianity’s future in America. His voice is important for the church to hear.
Dreher’s “How Dante Can Save Your Life” (2015) is the best devotional book I’ve read in a long time, and his commentary at theamericanconservative.com is must reading for anyone wanting to keep up with the latest religious news. But I’ve especially been waiting for his latest book, “The Benedict Option.” It was finally published last month and I’m plowing through it now chapter by chapter, sometimes line by line, filling the pages with my own comments and responses in red ink as I work through the news he brings from the front lines of the church’s battle with modern culture.
That battle became impossible to ignore with two legal earthquakes in 2015. First, the state of Indiana passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in April which guaranteed its citizens the religious rights spelled out in the First Amendment. The hysterical opposition that followed—initially led by the LGTB community but soon joined by a diverse group of influential corporations and organizations—led to the bill being re-written to eliminate the very liberties it had been designed to protect.
The second event took place in June, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in all fifty states.
Dreher makes the observation that the two events demonstrate the new reality in American life where what he calls Big Government, Big Law, Big Business are working together to enforce a sexual morality at odds with traditional Christianity.
Today, Christians who follow their convictions regarding, especially sexual morality risk of their livelihood and financial stability. Barronelle Stutzman, the elderly florist from Richland, Washington who couldn’t bring herself to provide flowers at a same-sex marriage because of her religious beliefs, was sued by the couple for civil rights violations as well as the state of Washington for discrimination. She lost both cases and now will in all likelihood lose everything she owns. Dreher believes—as do I—that Stutzman’s fate soon will be shared by many faithful Christians and churches across the nation.
Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind. But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.
“The Benedict Option” is Dreher’s response to what he views as a crisis every bit as threatening to the church as the fall of Rome four hundred years after Christ.
Benedict of Nursia was a fifth-century Roman from a wealthy family. When as a young man studying in Rome he witnessed first-hand the imperial city’s moral decay and cultural failure, his Christian conscience wouldn’t allow him to stay. So he fled to the countryside and founded the monastic order known as the Benedictines.
It turned out Benedict and his small band weren’t the only ones trying to preserve their faith. What began as a trickle of religious refugees became a flood and the single monastery spawned many others. The resulting monastic system spread over all of Europe and preserved the Christian faith through the centuries of darkness and evil that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. They became centers of faith, of learning, of culture and of hope. Indeed, it was the monasteries that preserved western civilization during the time of its greatest crisis.
Quoting the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, Dreher points to the circumstances of ancient Rome as reminiscent of our own:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.
The point of “The Benedict Option” is that the church must follow Benedict’s example and stage a strategic withdrawal from the prevailing society in order to preserve our spiritual identity and the essentials of our faith. Like the medieval monks, we must build up our own culture and institutions in order to be prepared for the day when once again we can have a positive impact on the world.
Through the course of his book, Dreher visits a variety of Christian communities across the world. From the Monastery of St. Benedict in the saint’s hometown of Norsia, Italy, where a small community of monks keep their founder’s vision alive, to Alleluia Community in Augusta, where a group of Catholics, Protestants and Charismatics have somehow figured out a way to live together since 1973, he interviews people who are figuring out how to live as Benedict lived.
It’s a fascinating journey, and while living in Christian community isn’t for everyone, the timeless principles of faithfulness and community building that lie underneath their lifestyle choice should catch our attention, especially those of us in church leadership.
Dreher shows first-hand the importance of building Christian institutions—especially those devoted to worship, missions and children’s education—in defining and perpetuating our faith. At the same time, he gives a devastating critique of modern American church life, which in his view—and I couldn’t agree more—has become so shallow and consumer-driven that our young people have no spiritual depth at all. There’s a reason so many of them are abandoning the faith.
Not everyone will agree with “The Benedictine Option” but I think it’s one of the most important Christian books of the last few years. I know that in the current Christian culture of books devoted to making us feel better about ourselves, Dreher comes across as pessimistic and negative—but that fact is there’s good reason. If we in the church don’t begin to think critically (and historically!) about our future in America, we’ll be in even deeper trouble than we are now.