March 15, 2017

The Benedict Option: What is It?

by Wyatt Graham
Author. 1825. Public Domain

Author. 1825. Public Domain

Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option has gained a foothold in the minds of many. David Brooks from the NYTimes calls The Benedict Option “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” What makes The Benedict Option‘s influence striking is that it made such a big splash before the book was even released.

For many, however, the Benedict Option (BenOpt) is an unknown entity or fuzzy concept. In light of these factors, I will explain what the BenOpt is and will try to explain why the BenOpt has gained so much attention over the past few weeks. 

What is the BenOpt? 

The BenOpt is a call to live in an intentionally Christian way in light the West’s antagonism to Christianity. The name Benedict Option plays on the sixth century Benedict Rule, written by Benedict of Nursia during the turbulent decline of the Roman Empire. For Dreher, the West is going through a similar chaotic period. Karen Swallow Prior explains:

Understanding the title goes a long way toward understanding the concept. “Benedict” refers, of course, to the sixth century founder of a monastic order established during the swirling cultural chaos of the falling Roman Empire. Dreher turns to Benedict to pick up on a suggestion made by moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his 1981 book, After Virtue. MacIntyre points to Benedict as a model from the past for our current culture, which no longer sees virtue as essential to a flourishing civilization. “Option” is a twist on Rule, the name of the guidelines Benedict developed for godly and communal living in the monastery. Dreher’s use of “option” is an implicit acknowledgment that everything in modernity is a matter of choice, right down to the very attempt to resist modernity.

The BenOpt is not, however, a call to enter into a Monastic order. Prior further explains:

To the contrary, The Benedict Option calls Christians wherever they live and work to “form a vibrant counterculture” by cultivating practices and communities that reflect the understanding that Christians, who are not citizens of this world, need not “prop up the current order” (18). While the monastery that birthed the Benedict Rule was literal, the monastery invoked in The Benedict Option is metaphorical. It is not a place, but a way.

The way of life that BenOpt calls Christians to involves a number of virtues: order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance (see here). I should note that by asceticism Dreher does not necessarily mean becoming a monk. He means disciplining oneself in a Christian way to resist culture. Although I cannot remember where, I’ve heard Carl Trueman describe the BenOpt as simply how the church is supposed to be. In this sense, the BenOpt is nothing new.

A note before moving on: if anyone objects to resourcing Benedict of Nursia for Evangelicals today due to Roman Catholic influence, I would respond by saying that Benedict is also part of the Reformed or Evangelical tradition. Benedict is our guy, the Roman Catholic Church went awry at the Reformation. So they may claim Benedict, but Benedict and anyone else before 1517 belong to us too. BenOpt has numerous problems but being Roman Catholic is not one of them.

Who is Rod Dreher?

Rod Dreher’s an Orthodox Christian and a public intellectual. As a Christian intellectual, he associates with the likes of Carl TruemanAlbert Mohler, and Russell Moore. As a public intellectual, he writes for The American ConservativeDreher is an able writer and speaker. So he has been able to popularize his call for Christians to embrace the BenOpt in various venues.

As an Orthodox Christian, I find it fascinating that Dreher has made such an impact among Evangelicals. Even Don Carson on the Desiring God podcast recently discussed the BenOpt. Dreher’s influence may worry many Evangelicals who are not comfortable with Orthodox Christianity. I think especially of Baptist missionaries in Russia who experience a Christ-less religion among Orthodox believers and others in similar situations.

The worry is justified. But when it comes to Dreher, he really does seem to be encouraging Christians to return to their traditional beliefs and to form distinctive Christians communities, which as Trueman has said, is essentially a return to a Christian way of doing church. And insofar as Dreher points back to Benedict, we can find some common ground.

Why Is the Internet Alive with the Sound of Benedict?

Rod Dreher has been advocating the BenOpt for some time. Already on July 5, 2016, he joined Carl Trueman, Todd Pruitt, and Aimee Byrd on the Mortification of Spin to speak about the BenOpt. Dreher had been thinking about the BenOpt for some time. He seems to locate the origin of his thought to a time when he was reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue about ten years before the Mortification of Spin interview (so 2006).

The publication of his 2017 book (released on March 14), however, reinvigorated his argument and brought it into the mainstream. What Dreher has done so well is to identify a problem that many Christians see in our current cultural milieu. We have lost our moral majority and the culture is turning against Christian values, even demonizing them. Soon, as Dreher warns, Christians will no longer be able to participate in certain professions.

One only needs to consider how Christian bakers have been under fire in recent years. I can also see a possible future where Christians will have to choose between holding fast to their Christian convictions or pursuing a medical career, since Western medicine may soon demand that all medical professionals participate in physician assisted suicide.

Dreher’s thesis thus plays into a larger fear that Christians have lost their place in the culture. In part, this is why Dreher’s BenOpt appeals to a variety of Christians, especially to conservative Christians who will not give into cultural pressures and give up their convictions about, say, LGBTQ issues. This at least begins to explain why Dreher’s book has hit a nerve among Evangelicals.

Conclusion

The BenOpt is not a call to enter into a monastery but strategic retreat into Christian community. It’s a call to live in an intentional way to survive the oncoming cultural onslaught. Of course, the next decades will almost certainly not include physical persecution. But Christian schools will begin to lose their accreditation, jobs will filter out convictional Christians, and traditional beliefs will become more and more demonized. Dreher’s audience feels that this Dark Age is coming, and they are looking for strategies to survive the darkness. The BenOpt provides just that.

***

In my next post, I will chronicle how The Benedict Option grew to become what David Brooks described as”the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

Wyatt Graham

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Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He also blogs at www.wyattgraham.com. Follow him at @wagraham. Follow TGCCanada at @CanadaTgc.
  • J0sephW

    Interesting post!

    Can I ask, when you say,

    “Benedict is our guy, the Roman Catholic Church went awry at the Reformation. So they may claim Benedict, but Benedict and anyone else before 1517 belong to us too. BenOpt has numerous problems but being Roman Catholic is not one of them.”

    What does this mean, I though the Catholic Church was awry since its beginning?

    • Hi J0sephW,

      Good question! The Reformation aimed to reform the Catholic Church. But that unfortunately did not happen in a universal way. So the Protestants continued on, while the Roman Catholics went sidelong into error.

      You’d be right to say that the Catholic Church was awry for the last 500 years, but before that Christians in Europe were part of the Catholic Church (this doesn’t mean that we didn’t go awry!!!).

      Actually, I would suggest that from between 1100-1500 the Catholic Church began to embrace more and more error through the influence of Scholasticism. Hence, the Reformation.

      The Catholic Church or the catholic church means the universal church. And the issues surrounding papal authority, purgatory, etc. developed more strongly in the medieval era. That’s when serious error crept into the RCC, and that’s why the Protest against the RCC church was needed.

      But if you say that the Catholic Church was awry since its beginning (as in the 2nd century? or at Nicaea in the 4th?), then I would disagree. Polycarp, Ignatius, etc. are part of our Christian history. Plus, the Reformers weren’t originally trying to leave the Catholic Church, they aimed to reform it.

      Does that help?

      • J0sephW

        Thank you! Yes it does. It’s confused me a lot for example why some Protestants recommend Thomas a Kempis, and both Reformed and Catholic Christians claim Augustine – but that makes sense. I need to read more on church history to fully get my thoughts in order.

      • Alex

        Wyatt, this is a great answer. I’ve been known to explain it like this to our young adults…

        Beginning in 325 AD when Constantine legitimized Christianity, the waters were muddied, blurring the line between Biblical Christian faith and nominal, secular Christendom.

        From the Council of Trent onward (1545-1563), the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church has been apostate, as they deny the authority of Scripture and the gospel of faith/grace alone.

        Between those times, you have to consider the source individually when you listen to the great men and heroes of the faith.

    • DelawareMom

      If the Catholic Church was awry since it’s beginning, then the
      Protestant church cannot be valid because it is derived from the
      Catholic Church. Even the Bible was handed down from the Catholic
      Church. So that would make the Bible invalid. And if the Catholic
      Church was “awry since it’s beginning”, then that would mean that Jesus
      Christ and his followers failed to establish a valid Church. But we
      know from the Bible that Jesus did start a Church because of the
      following quote, and that Peter was the leader of the Church that Jesus
      founded. ” And I say also unto
      thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church;
      and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”~Matthew 16:18.

      • This isn’t the thread to rehash all the arguments for why the Roman Catholic Church is an apostate church and a demonic religion. We’ve done that numerous times on the Cripplegate, and, as you have participated in some of those threads, your objections have been answered thoroughly. So I’m going to briefly respond to your assertions and then ask that we get back to the topic of the post.

        If the Catholic Church was awry since its beginning, then the
        Protestant church cannot be valid because it is derived from the
        Catholic Church. Even the Bible was handed down from the Catholic Church.

        Both of these assertions are simply false. The “Protestant Church,” i.e., Protestantism, is derived from Scripture, and is only so-called because it was protesting the very notion that the Roman Catholic Church was the Church Christ founded. Protestantism was birthed out of reformation, not innovation — that is, out of reforming the genuine church back to what it was when Christ established it, before it had been hijacked by Romanism.

        Similarly, the Catholic Church did not “hand down” the Bible to Christians. God’s Word always creates God’s people (1 Pet 1:23-25; James 1:18); His people do not create His Word. Besides that, the canon of Scripture was recognized (note, not established) well in advance of the existence of Roman Catholicism. If we’re generous, there was nothing analogous to the present form of Romanism until the 6th century. The earliest canonical lists date to the late 2nd century, and the issue was beyond dispute by the mid 4th century.

        And if the Catholic Church was “awry since it’s beginning”, then that would mean that Jesus Christ and his followers failed to establish a valid Church.

        No it wouldn’t. It would just mean that the Roman Catholic Church was not the church that Jesus established. And it wasn’t.

        But we know from the Bible that Jesus did start a Church because of the following quote, and that Peter was the leader of the Church that Jesus founded. ” And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”~Matthew 16:18.

        Yes, Jesus did establish His Church, but it was not the Roman Catholic Church. And yes, Peter did have a leadership role in Christ’s Church, but he was not a “first pope;” he was a “fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed” (1 Pet 5:1), just as the other elders in Christ’s Church.

        More on that here: http://thecripplegate.com/upon-this-rock/
        And here: https://www.gty.org/library/bibleqnas-library/BQ060612/peter-the-rock-of-the-church

  • Well written Wyatt!

  • James Wells

    I get concerned with anything that even hints of the RCC. I see folks like Matt Chandler and even some PCA types talking about the wonder of Lent and it makes me nervous. Are we getting on the RCC ecumenical bandwagon with this book?

    • James,

      We need to clearly hold to our Protestant convictions. I don’t think Dreher’s work aims to bring Protestants to the RCC (he is an Orthodox Christian). I have my critiques of the work as well. I am basically explaining what it’s all about and why it’s so popular right now.

      • James Wells

        Thanks. When you say Orfthodox, do you mean OPC or Greek Orthodox? I have a similar problem with Greek Orthodox doctrines as well.

        • Greek Orthodox. And I might share your concern too. I tried to communicate something to that effect here:

          “The worry is justified. But when it comes to Dreher, he really does seem to be encouraging Christians to return to their traditional beliefs and to form distinctive Christians communities, which as Trueman has said, is essentially a return to a Christian way of doing church. And insofar as Dreher points back to Benedict, we can find some common ground.”

  • Wyatt–thanks for your work on this. Its helpful for me to read. Count me in the group tho that is suspicious of the BenOpt for RCC reasons. The one time I’ve heard Dreher speak, he favorably quoted Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, and Pope John Paul. He didn’t say anything that made me think he understood salvation by faith alone. Granted that wasn’t his topic, but if I was aiming at evangelicals and my “option” was literally named after a Catholic monk, I’d do lots of stretches to address that issue.

    • Sure. Be skeptical. I have my criticisms too.

      I’m trying to explain what the book is all about and why people are interested in it. Not affirming Dreher’s theology, etc.

    • J0sephW

      Dear Jesse, can I ask, do you have the same view of the Catholic church before the Reformation, that they can be seen our guys, so to speak? I am trying to get my head around this topic…

    • SolaD

      Amen to what Jesse Johnson states here. When do we look to a 6th century monk as an example? Is not God’s Word sufficient here? Also, why such high regard for an author whose Biblical stance is in Greek Orthodoxy? This seems to be another new fangled tactic that would especially appeal to the YRR and also pushes an elusive ecumenical agenda. We don’t need a Benedict Option when we rest on God’s Word. Col. 3:2

  • Jason

    Albert Mohler’s interview with Dreher kept bringing me back to “This shouldn’t be as jarring to the church as it seems to be.” This discussion seems long overdue.

    The early church shared all things in common(Acts 4:32). They broke bread together, and met daily (Acts 2:46). When Paul entered a town, he was able to find the brothers, and in a culture where the congregations weren’t in huge buildings with big crosses on top (and something tells me they weren’t on Google Maps).

    If the church today were to go back in time, we would almost certainly be at a loss how a group of people who spent so much time together with fellow believers could be “in the world” enough to have the evangelistic success they did, while we, who spend so much time in the world (work, living, entertainment, etc…), are largely ignored. That, by itself, is sufficient reason to seriously consider what Dreher is saying.

    • Yeah. I think you’ve hit some helpful notes there.

  • Ron Francis

    I find this discussion most interesting……
    I would suggest that those with an open mind might want to read, Wylie on the History of Protestantism.

    You can find a free copy here, or any number of other places.

    http://arcticbeacon.com/books/History_of_Protestantism-Wylie-1878.pdf

  • Simple Man

    My few online cents (for what the are worth): Anything with the word retreat involved is a cop-out. I am pretty well sick of hearing from Christians who want to ‘hunker-down’ and ‘prepare for persecution’. If we are going to get persecuted then we should put our nose in the ring and take it on the chin. Are we beyond asking God to work in revival and change the entire cultural landscape? Is anything too hard for God? “The righteous one shall live by faith, but if he shrinks back my soul will have no pleasure in him”…

  • Dave

    Interesting that within the virtues offered, evangelism and missions are not listed. Perhaps this is due to the monastic origin of the options as relayed by the Orthodox commentator.
    As I look at “the West…going through a similar chaotic period” as failing Rome I am encouraged more by the Apostle Paul’s (and other missionaries’) use of the Pax Romana to spread the Word than by the hunkering down of New Testament Christians in their home station. Both sets of descriptions of early church life have application for us today, and should be interconnected. Paul’s gratitude for the gift from Philippi was not so that he could live comfortably, but that “the fruit that increases to your credit” (Phil 4:17).
    Let’s pray that American Christians will recognize the opportunity to do the same.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head. Mission/evangelism needs to be central.

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  • JM

    I find this perspective interesting. Our pastors did a podcast reviewing this book and Mohler’s podcast on Feb 22. http://theocast.org/64-the-benedict-option/

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