By: Fr Terry Tastard
Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
New York: Sentinel, 2017
Ever since the publication of The Benedict Option the blogosphere has been humming with comments about this book. Dreher sounds the alarm about how our post-Christian society is leeching the life and distinctiveness out of the Church. In part he blames the coercive liberalism which occupies the commanding heights of culture in the West: ‘It is now considered bigoted to say that the natural family is superior to any other arrangement’ (210). Cultural institutions should create ideals, both ideals that inspire and ideals that restrain, to permeate a society. The West, having moved away from any idea of restraint, is trying to build a culture without any belief in a higher order. The battle for gay marriage having succeeded, he says transgenderism is the next battleground and then polygamy will follow (42-43).
Dreher refers to Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity: to succeed today you should have no fixed identity, no commitments, be unbound by the past or the future. In this acid bath of postmodernity the Christian Church has increasingly watered down its message, conforming more and more to the ethos of the times. Dreher comments, ‘A church that looks and sounds just like the world has no reason to exist’ (121).
What is to be done? He calls for a new praxis which will enable Christians to live their faith without compromise. The key here is the creation of communities in which they can follow an agreed spiritual discipline, give their children a faith-filled classical education, and encourage one another. This explains the reference to St Benedict in the title of Dreher’s book. It draws from Alasdair MacIntyre’s ground-breaking critique in After Virtue, in which MacIntyre said that the West had lost any principled framework in making moral choices. When asked what guides their moral choices, people reply ‘If it feels right to me’. MacIntyre envisaged the possibility of a new and different St Benedict who would help create communities to nourish Christian culture in a bleak world, like monks in the Dark Ages.
This summary may make the book sound like hard going. It is not. The style verges on the journalistic at times. It bowls along without puzzling the reader. The biggest weakness of the book is the sparseness of examples of the kind of community that Dreher would like to see. He weaves references throughout the book, but from the same few communities. In fact the most frequent references are to a conservative Benedictine abbey in Norcia, Italy, which is hardly a template for families. I wanted to hear more about the St Jerome network of Catholic families in Washington, DC, who have chosen to live in the same area and worship at the same parish. (Dreher himself is Eastern Orthodox, but makes his appeal to orthodox Christians - with a small ‘o’ – across the board.)
I also wondered about his complaint that priests and pastors no longer preach or teach Christian discipline out of fear of political correctness. Perhaps we are too much in thrall to the Zeitgeist. But any priest worth his salt is aware of the struggles and hurts of people in the congregation, and wonders whether Christian rigour will help or hinder them.
And yet: Is Dreher being unnecessarily alarmist? Hardly. The collapse of faith among the millennials is well known. Here in Britain, church attendance figures are in freefall. He is also right to challenge how we fail to notice where the sexual revolution is leading. It has consequences that ramify into family law, school curricula, reproductive technology, the business world and politics. He worries that conservative Christians will find themselves shut out from jobs because they cannot sign up to this agenda. If you still doubt the need for alarm, consider the recent insouciant announcement about transgender rights here in the UK made by Justine Greening, Minister for Education (and Minister for Women and Inequalities). She wants to streamline the process of transition. Even before this there were reports of growing numbers of children, with support from social workers, telling their parents that they want medication to begin the transition process.
In this darkling world Rod Dreher wants us to build communities, institutions and networks of Christian resistance. His book is thought-provoking and challenging. I find it strange that (so far) there is no UK publisher, although it is readily available from all the usual internet outlets.