The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In a Post-Christian Nation

by Rod Dreher
Reviewed date: 2020 Apr 15
255 pages
cover art

The Benedict Option is a book written for Christians in America. It starts with two axioms.

  1. The culture war is over.
  2. Christians lost.

Now, given that we lost the culture war, The Benedict Option attempts to answer this question: How do we live as a minority in a culture that calls our godly values evil?

Christians can no longer be fully American
For generations, Christians have been able to fully participate in American culture. There was no part of American life closed to Christians. Any job, any profession, any elected position, any school or college, any city or town or state--it was all open to Christians. No more.

We will lose our jobs and our businesses
Christian beliefs about morality, about sexuality, about life, about right and wrong and good and evil--all these are unacceptable to the modern secular American worldview. As Christians in the 21st century we can expect to lose our jobs and businesses and be shut out of public life. Certain professions--like doctor, nurse, pharmacist, eventually even schoolteacher, lawyer, florist, or baker--will be off limits to Christians who refuse to compromise on godly principles.

So how do we live? Parallel institutions
Simply to survive, we must create our own parallel institutions and way of life. We must live lives of sacrifice and privation. We must reconnect with church history through liturgy, tradition, and disciplined practices like fasting and vespers.

We cannot simply hold our Christian values and expect to participate in American life. The America which tolerated different ways of life and allowed differences of opinion is gone. The liberal secular worldview is implacable, unyielding, intolerant, and totalitarian. It allows no dissent. If we do not find a way to survive in a culture that finds our way of life evil, we will not endure.

"The best resistance to totalitarianism is simply to drive it out of our own souls, our own circumstances." - Victor Havel

Forget political power
Political power will not save our way of life. We've lost the culture war and no longer have the political capital to effect real change on a national level. The judges appointed by the Trump administration may stem the tide for a while, but the culture war is lost and the judges will give us a temporary reprieve at best. Christians should forget political power or political goals--except in an attempt to protect religious liberty. Beyond that, Christians should focus our energies on developing our own communities, seeking to have an impact where we can. E.g., forget trying to pack the courts and overturn Roe v. Wade--that's a pipe dream and always will be. Instead, open a CPC and do what we can, where we can, to make a difference on the ground.

A Christian Village (chapter 6)
After several chapters of setting the stage, in chapter six Dreher finally gets down to telling us what Christians must do to survive. First, we must create a Christian community. Faith must be communal, not individual, to survive. This begins with the basic unit of society, the family.

Turn your home into a domestic monastery.

Dreher says we should look to monastic practices to guide us in how we should fashion a home life that takes God seriously. Some practices in particular include:

  • Regular times of family prayer
  • Regular scripture reading
  • Study stories of the saints, Christian heroes of the past
  • Put the church first (even if it means giving up other important activities, like sports or whatever)
  • Sacrifice other things to be part of the church

Geography is important here, too. Live close to your church. It's hard to be regularly involved in church life if you aren't at church. A twenty minute drive away is probably too far. You should be at church a lot. A lot.

Have ecumenical friendships and partnerships. The church community is not a cult--we aren't afraid of Christians who do things differently. We aren't afraid of the world. We're a community--a flexible community with shared moral beliefs, but we're not a cult.

Also, a family should cultivate those things that are spiritually formative, and keep out things that are contrary to spiritual formation. Strictly limit media. Limit screens, games, and television. Remember, "too much exposure to morally compromising material will, over time, dull one's moral instincts." To sum up: be serious about spiritual life. Give up other things to make time for God and the church.

"[Kids] need to know that following Jesus radically is not an impossible dream." - Marco Sermarini

A healthy family: obedience, not unaccountable authority
A family, like a monastery, must have a culture of obedience. But this is not absolute. Those given authority must submit themselves to a higher authority. A family is not a dictatorship of dad. A healthy family has a culture of obedience, but a healthy family is loving and forgiving, not tyrannical. A healthy family limits exposure to the world, but it is not fanatically paranoid. A healthy family is full of love, not anxiety.

Too much exposure to morally compromising material will, over time, dull one's moral instincts.

Finally, Dreher points out that kids need a good peer group, and the criterion for a good peer group is shared strong moral beliefs. Transmitting our culture to our children is vital, because culture is so quickly lost. That brings us to the next big topic: Christian education

"Culture is lost in a single generation." - Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption

Before we move on, though, I want to highlight something Dreher says. All this sounds hard to get right. There's so much. Well, don't wait to start. Do "good enough," don't wait for perfect. The Benedict Option? It's just living out the Christian life. So start.

Christian Education (chapter 7)
Modern American cultures sees education as preparation for the workforce. By contrast, Christians should view education as a means of passing on our culture. We need more than mainstream schooling plus some religion classes. This means: no public schools. And some private Christian schools are no better, if they use the same model of education as the public schools. We need a fundamentally different model.

Dreher says we should look to the Classical Education model, based on the Great Books and the Trivium. In Grammar School the kids start out by memorizing facts, then in Logic they learn how to reason, and finally, older students study Rhetoric where they learn abstract thinking and self-expression. As part of this curriculum, we should be teaching our children the scriptures. They must be theologically literal. Also, teach them the history of Western Civilization. In this case, Western culture is Christian culture. (Not because the West is inherently Christian, but because Christian culture so permeates the history of Western thought, and because Western rational philosophy is so integral to an understanding of scripture.) The kids should read Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Greek and Roman history, Descartes, Newton.

At this point, I am unsure about what Dreher suggests. I can see his point about education being more than a preparation for the workforce. But as far as the Classical Education model, I had two kids who seemed uniquely unsuited to it. We tried it with them, and it simply didn't work. Grammar School in particular was a complete waste of time for one of them--completely wasted years. For the other, Logic and Rhetoric were disasters. These are both intelligent, gifted people who had some minor learning differences. Both of them would have thrived in a different educational model. The Classical Education model doesn't appear to allow this, although maybe that was just the particular Classical curriculum and co-op organization we chose.

So my response here is to take the criticisms Dreher has of the modern American public schooling model, but to not necessarily assume Classical Education is the answer. It may be, for some kids. But it wasn't for my older ones, and it may not be for my younger ones either.

Preparing for Hard Labor (chapter 8)
Today's workforce is hostile to Christian sexual ethics. We will all have to consider this as we choose our professions. Public accommodation laws may make it impossible to hold to our Christian beliefs and hold certain jobs. Doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, professors, psychologists, social workers, government employers, employees of big corporations, even florists, bakers, and photographers may be forced by law to choose between their Christian beliefs and their jobs.

Christians who refuse to compromise on their beliefs will be blacklisted and locked out of certain professions.

So, we must not compromise. We shouldn't be overly combative--not every hill is worth dying on. But we must not participate in evil. Do not participate in or affirm evil. No abortion, no euthanasia, no affirming LGBT as normative.

To survive, we must be entrepreneurial. Given that we will be locked out of certain professions and even out of working for big companies, we must start our own businesses. We must patronize Christian-owned businesses, even if it costs more. We must build out Christian employment networks--Christians hiring other Christians. It's the only way to survive.

And we must be prepared to suffer. We will be poorer and we will be marginalized.

Eros (chapter 9)
Christianity and the Sexual Revolution are diametrically opposed. The majority of Americans see sex as "primarily for personal pleasure or self-expression," not procreation. With that mindset, gay marriage makes sense.

Christians must not compromise our doctrine. Do not conform to the culture by affirming LGBT doctrine. Hold fast. Notice that LGBT-affirming churches are declining at a faster rate than orthodox churches--compromising on the truth won't save us, it will hasten our destruction.

No. Instead, affirm proper sexuality. Talk about sex and proper sexual discipline and practice. And practically, the church should support people--both singles and couples--in understanding and living out a proper Christian sexual ethic. Maybe churches should start housing communities for singles. (Sort of like single-gender dorms? Not sure what Dreher is going for here? Maybe just pushing back on the idea that churches seem to be set up for married couples, without much space for singles.)

Oh, and vigorously oppose pornography. (To that end, children should not have smartphones or unsupervised internet access. Period.)

Man and Machine (chapter 10)
Finally, Dreher finishes up with a chapter on technology. He warns us to be smart, to think hard. Technology is not morally neutral. Watch out for its insidious effects. The internet is addictive, it shortens our attention spans, and prevents contemplation and deep thinking.

Further, technology has allowed a comeback of terrible ideas about eugenics, designer babies, IVF. These things are evil. Oppose them.

Don't assume technology is morally neutral. Think hard. See the dangers.

The greatest danger is not leftwing politics or radical Islam. It is the secular liberal order itself.

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