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If there was someone who did not exercise the Benedict Option, it was Saint Benedict himself. The problem with the Benedict Option is that it does not have the substance, unity, and goal of the Benedictine ideal that set the world on fire with the love of God…

Abandoned ChurchNo one disputes the attractiveness of living outside the liberal and politically correct society that dominates American life. To the degree possible, there is even an obligation to keep some separation from today’s decadent society. Hence, all this explains the controversy around the so-called Benedict Option.

The Benedict Option is the brainchild of author Rod Dreher who, in his book of the same name, claims the Culture War is over. Rather than battle the waters of a decadent mainstream, he claims it is better to build arks to ride out the flood. Small intentional ark communities, not necessarily physically separated from society, will provide the means to carry this out. Just as Saint Benedict of Nursia supposedly left decadent Rome in the sixth century for the wilderness (he didn’t), so also concerned Americans should “secede culturally” from a rotten mainstream that is lost.

A Postmodern Proposal

There is something very postmodern about the proposal. It is indeed suited to virtual times in which negative relationships with communities can be defined by unfollowing and unfriending and positive associations signaled with “likes.” A Benedict Option assumes one can unfollow the mainstream, unfriend those that threaten family life, and “like” those who hold similar views.  It seems the proposal is much better suited to a Facebook page than a cultural blueprint for communities of believers.

And that is one of the problems with the Benedict Option. It is Benedict lite. It does not have the substance, unity, and goal of the Benedictine ideal that set the world on fire with the love of God. It does not aspire to the grand objectives that made the Benedictine model the center of culture and the foundation of Christian Europe. It is merely an option, or rather many options, one can entertain inside the storm. In postmodern terms, it represents the unraveling of a dominant metanarrative into many fragments and shards.

The Option can be reduced to a merited discontent with the modern world and a legitimate desire for alternatives. However, the Option does not specifically define what the goal or goals should be or how they are to be pursued. Rather, the goals and methods are left to whatever members decide them to be.

Benedict Lite

This is why the Option is Benedict lite. The Option takes those things that defined Saint Benedict and deconstructs them to adapt to postmodern times even to the point of contradiction. Thus, whereas Saint Benedict unified and melded a chaotic jumble of primitive monasteries into Western monasticism, the Option scatters households into “domestic monasteries” of different beliefs. Saint Benedict’s rules were very specific, flexible and ordering; the Option has no rules and leaves everything vague and ambiguous. Saint Benedict was Catholic and therefore universal; the Option is ecumenical and thus fragmenting and particular.

Unfortunately, the book does not enter or want to enter, into details about leaders and structures of authority inside the Option. This is a vital issue since it is the bane of intentional communities. The American sociological landscape is full of the ruins of intentional communities that failed after the death of their founders or because of internal quarrels. If some community is to be founded, it will need strong leaders like Benedict. More importantly for today, it will need Saint Benedicts. That is to say, these leaders will have to be virtuous, long-suffering, and prudent. They will need to be what sociologists call “representative characters” who know how to unify, set the tone and sacrifice themselves for the common good.

That is what gives the Benedict Option its Facebook feel. Membership appears to be almost an opt-in. Its intentional communities are presented as associations of co-equal members with few governing structures. Such a social arrangement is not a community but a cooperative, in which members join and leave as it suits their fancy. Ironically, such options mirror the modern individualistic institutions and corporate structures that brought on the present crisis. It also resembles the Facebook page which serves as a shallow yet helpful point of unity for a group of individuals who friend and unfriend at the click of a mouse. While a page might supply news and updates, it can also project distorted images of reality. The danger of Benedict Lite is that people might think it is the real thing.

The Real Thing

Saint Benedict was the real thing. He was not afraid to engage the culture and understood well the struggle between good and evil. He finally settled not in the wilderness but on an estate of the father of one of his disciples. He could be seen overthrowing the idols, burning the sacred forests of the pagans, and preaching to those near his monastery. If there was someone who did not exercise the Benedict Option, it was Saint Benedict himself.

Saint Benedict had defined goals, established doctrines, and governing structures. In his famous manual called The Rule of Saint Benedict, he left nothing to chance. He established the fundamental principles, offices, and procedures that allowed his communities to prosper inside the ordered liberty of his flexible rule. He understood that this world is not made to be a material paradise and that man must embrace the Cross of Christ that is at the heart of life in this vale of tears. The saint understood the role of God’s grace in helping people and communities to practice virtue and reach perfection. Christendom was the result of his vision and labors.

In today’s shallow Facebook world, people are tired of hollow options. They are exhausted by the frenetic intemperance of undisciplined lives of instant gratification. The real Saint Benedict speaks to postmodern man because he addresses longings for order, authenticity, and temperance. Saint Benedict cannot be reduced to an Option or made Lite. Rather, he must be presented as he truly was. The restless hearts of postmodern men demand the real thing.

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9 replies to this post
  1. What really strikes me as post modern is all this handwringing and discussion and deconstruction about The Benedict Option. There is nothing wrong with it nor is there anything wrong with staying and doing battle. I hope we do try it and it succeeds. I think those who oppose the Benedict Option vastly underestimate the magnitude of the secular madness to which regular intellectually defenseless and unarmed people are exposed and the difficulty of mounting any sort of resistance. Heck my daughter has had six years with my grandson teaching him that marriage is between a man and a woman and halway thru his kindergarden school year he comes home to correct her by saying that two men can be married also. We are at a point where we are all to some degree now brainwashed. Exiting allows a return to the way of life we all seek. This battle is lost for now excepting some catastrophe that wakes people up. Trump has revealed many things to us all and right now we are seeing acted out on the national stage exactly how deep the problems are. If some wish to stay and be around the sorts of people representing at least half this country then good luck. I would love to take my family and myself out…lets give it a try, for the life of me I do not know where to go since the entire planet seems to be in the grip of darkness.

    • Good comment. We are all trying to do our best in this crazy world. The Benedict Option may work for some people, but the Chesterton Option (stay in the world and engage it) may suit others.

  2. It may be true that the book, in an attempt to be ecumenical, leaves too much up to the mind and interpretation of the reader. It may be too soft and too vague in its prescriptions. This may indeed end up leaving the Benedict Option smelling too much of Hipster Post-modernism.

    However, the basic message of the book is vitally important. The undeniable fact of our situation is that Christianity in America has been deeply compromised by it’s marriage to American politics and culture. The ultimate message of the Benedict Option is that the Church must be the Church first, before any other goal. Too many would-be Christians in America don’t realize that their faith is being taken from them and from the children precisely because they are living as members of a secular (or even pagan) culture that contradicts the faith they claim to hold.

    The book attempts to show that “culture” is all about formation and that the culture you choose to live in is forming you whether you know it or not and whether you like it or not.

    This message does not need to set up new rules of leadership or authority structures because the Church itself already has those things. What we are lacking is a real, vibrant community that actually lives out the existing Church structures.

  3. There is a line from S. M. Sterling in one of his books about an alternate reality. A tank commander is reported to have said, “If you are out of petrol, make like a pillbox. If you are out of ammo, make like a bunker. If you are out of hope, make like a hero.”

    Facing reality, Conservatism (not Right-wing-ism) ran out of gas some time back. Now RD wants to make like a bunker. Will the day come when it is Hero Time?

    Stay tuned.

  4. Benedict lived in a culture in which the dominant religious option was some form of Roman Catholicism; he opted to live an ordered, disciplined, communal form of Roman Catholicism in order to challenge the corrupted and neglected Christian heritage. We must have more religious traditions represented in our modern equivalent Benedict Options precisely because we in our post-Reformation, pluralistic society do not have one dominant form in which Christian faith can be expressed. Dreher himself is Eastern Orthodox. I assume that his personal form of Benedict Option would involve Eastern Orthodox communities. We already have the Anabaptist version of Benedict Options, but they may become more numerous. There will also be Roman Catholic Benedict Options, evangelical Anglican Benedict Options, theologically conservative Lutheran Benedict Options, Reformed Benedict Options (say, ECO, CRC, RCA, PCA, although some of these–e.g., Kuyperians such as Tim Keller and James Davison Hunter–may be more inclined to try to work for change within existing secular cultural institutions), Baptist Benedict Options (say Southern Baptist), Wesleyan Holiness options [Nazarene, Wesleyan, Free Methodist, Churches of God (Anderson, IN)], Restoration Movement churches (Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, and evangelically inclined Disciples of Christ), various branches of Judaism Benedict Options,…we could go on and on. The point is that the cultural goals of these many religious groups might be quite similar, while their doctrinal and liturgical forms might be quite different. The whole point of the Benedict Option is to allow people to have a base from which to model disciplined faith-based alternatives to the dominant secular culture and to offer community support and models of disciplined living. My own opinion is that, although I wish followers of the Kuyperian model well, I feel that they are doomed to meet more failure than success. I believe that large numbers of Benedict Option communities adapted to our various Christian traditions offer the best way forward to have a long-term impact on our culture. I trust that some such options will emerge around schools, from pre-school through graduate school education.

  5. If you read John Horvat II’s book “Return To Order” he holds up the Mediaeval village as the ideal and also suggests pulling back from, if not withdrawing from the “culture of frenetic intemperance”… Rod Dreher mentions the same thing and lays out how to do so individually and as a community…

    Also, if what Chrisitians are currently working, as many of the critics seem to suggest… Why is the culture getting more and more dark, rotted, and evil ?

    And why are Chrisitians being compromised and co-opted by Satan ?

    Why are Christian children coming back from colleges agnostic or atheist ?

    Why do 17% of Chrisitians actually believe in God and the Bible ?

    I could go on…

    The Bible warns of the coming darkness, so why do Christian “sheep” keep on wanting to frolic with Satan’s “goats” in the meadow ?

  6. The thing is that there are many many thoughtful, faithful Catholics who have families. And it is these children who must be protected and nurtured in the faith. Where I live in Canada, the governmental noose is tightening on families, and Big Brother is positioning himself to swoop down and remove children from faithful families. Step by step, legislation is being put in place.

    Wake up call: Coming soon to a place near you.

    For those of us who view firsthand government breathing down our necks, we don’t give a whit about verbiage on Options or other like concepts. It is all about protecting our children and grandchildren from ever growing heavy-handed bureaucracy. Words are cheap. Big boots, armed with legislated law coming to our doorsteps is reality. The rubber meets the road.

  7. An Option community must be centered around one local church, with the church leadership, and the school leadership in control. It would have relationships, traditions, and similar ways of viewing the Christian life that individuals structure their lives around. It needs leaders with defined authority, including its limits, and commitment to submit to that authority. It would require vows to that covenant community. Most people today would accuse it of being a cult like church, despite orthodox theology, learned, and pious leaders. American individualism and individual autonomy is so ingrained in us as to make such a community impossible, save the work of God. Models of such communities are sorely needed, as the need is extremely urgent.

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