Building Up the Body of Christ: Meditations on The Benedict Option
Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
Few books have garnered the kind of interest that Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has received this year. David Brooks recently called it “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” Similarly, few books have been misperceived in quite the same way. Many have read it as an all-encompassing manifesto rather than the much more anecdotal conversation-starter that it is. Many have read it as a plea for Christians to flee their civic involvements rather than a stark call for churches to form and equip mature Christians who can only then transform their culture as opposed to be transformed by it. The book offers some analyses, the occasional argument, a few answers, and many questions. It provides rather little evidence yet many anecdotes and examples. And it prompts further thought and examination, connecting the reader to a host of more learned assessments of religious history and contemporary culture. It ought to be viewed as a conversation starter and a prompt for further analysis regarding culture, the church, and Christian formation. In what follows, I will sketch the problem identified by Rod Dreher, the solution offered by him, and then will reflect on some of his themes to suggest ways in which a classical Reformed theology might fill out or re-frame some of his concerns.
I. The Problem: Thin Christianity
What threats does Dreher identify? Were one to listen to many of his critics, The Benedict Option fixes its eyes upon the ever-encroaching reach of the culture, especially in its deployment of all sorts of manipulative tools to advance the LGBT lobby’s aims and to support moral libertinism. Such responses are not mere invention, for Dreher’s presence on social media quite regularly takes the form of commentary, at times approaching the hysterical, regarding the cultural and legal challenges before orthodox Christians. A number of critics and reviewers of this book have responded by suggesting that this tack lacks resolute Christian hope and fails to offer a robust Christian witness.
The Benedict Option does identify severe threats to orthodox Christian faith, though it is worth noting that they lie almost entirely within the walls of the city of God. It is true that Dreher does observe the broad advance of sexual freedom and of the recalibration of thought regarding gender and sexuality (2-3, 9, 179-186). And he does identity religious liberty, the attack upon which is so often tied to matters LGBT, as one of two great cultural challenges today (80, 84). But these are marginal notes by comparison to his overarching concern to address malformation within the body of Christ.
To understand Dreher’s concerns, we can plot his book amidst a number of other projects that diagnose contemporary Christian life in this country. Years ago the political philosopher Michael Walzer distinguished between “thick” and “thin” versions of truth and commitment to truth. Dreher’s first two chapters – “The Great Flood” (7-20) and “The Roots of the Crisis” (21-47) – observe that the challenge is internal, not merely or even primarily external. “Not only have we lost the public square, but the supposed high ground of our churches is no safe place either” (9). Depicting thin Christianity, Dreher turns to the notion of “moral therapeutic deism” described by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton as an operative or functional theology of the young and emerging adults in evangelical churches (10-12, 45). Consumerism (11) and emotivism (16) mark the religion of these young Christians, with remarkably little counter-formation coming from their churches. Self-esteem has replaced self-denial, such that Dreher views the “way of the cross” as no longer playing the role of a functional rule of discipleship.
Dreher’s second chapter offers his most concerted attempt to engage with theological argument as he offers a genealogy of ecclesiastical decline. This attempt to sketch the “roots of the crisis” begins not in the post-World War II era of consumption, much less with the free love espoused in the late 1960s, but returns all the way back to the fourteenth century. He offers a five-fold narrative arc that identifies major problems. His narrative observations are not anachronistic; he is relying on a number of significant scholars (e.g. Hans Boersma, Brad Gregory, John Milbank). Yet his account lacks any nuance or detail, even compared to their accounts which have been challenged in scholarly reviews as being themselves too simplistic. In many ways, this second chapter appears as the weakest chapter in The Benedict Option for, ironically, a thin analysis of a 700 year degeneration. But even here, it is telling to see that the inclusion of this chapter demonstrates the broader point, namely, that Dreher’s main and driving concern in this book regards the internal malformations of the church rather than the external threats which appear so challenging.
The most apt descriptions, then, of Dreher’s diagnosis are that Christian formation has too frequently been thin or superficial. Discipleship has failed to confront the individualism and materialism natural to life east of Eden. Dreher’s account parallels and draws on assessments from Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and Christian Smith. In many ways, his analysis of the problem is a praxis-oriented parallel to the assessment offered a few years ago in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, where that New York Times columnist lamented that American faith had turned heretical; to the heterodoxy identified by Douthat, Dreher identifies a paired heteropraxy, and this mutation also exists internal to the churches. While the external threats make faithfulness more difficult, the larger concern sketched by Dreher marks the failure of Christianity to maintain a thick and substantive witness in its own right. To consider an analogy, the danger is less that the church finds herself surrounded by carriers of a virus and prone to catching the airborne illness, and much more that the church’s immune system has been so weakened that her presence amongst the ill leaves her completely open to disease herself.
II. The Strategy: Thick Christianity
Again, misperceptions have set in amongst a number of reviewers and critics. Some have warned or feared that the call is to withdraw and to abandon the wider world. Images of the cloister or the Anabaptist community come to mind. Yet again, these concerns are not mere imaginings. Dreher does attest the need for a “strategic withdrawal” (2, 12, 13-19), and he does bring up the image of running for the hills in his conclusion, illustrating the call by speaking of a group of Benedictine monks fleeing an earthquake (241-243). This side of Abraham Kuyper and the neo-Calvinist movement (and parallel trends in post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholicism), which has influenced many well beyond the realm of the Dutch Reformed church, language of withdrawal prompts worry. Whereas misperception of Dreher’s diagnosis is premised largely on his work outside the pages of this text, here misperception is prompted from within its pages.
Nonetheless, suggestions that The Benedict Option calls for abandonment of the world are misperceptions. We should attend to his specific strategies which are particular and then consider how they fit together in a broader framework. The book includes a genealogy and governing images, but it really functions more as a set of protocols meant to invite further imagination regarding Christian formation and cultural engagement than as a programmatic manifesto.
Dreher points to several areas of attention. In the third chapter, “A Rule for Living,” he introduces the Rule of St. Benedict, the monastic order that serves as a launching pad rather than a paradigm for his own suggestions. We read that the “genius of St. Benedict is to find the presence of God in everyday life” (52); further, that the Benedictine Rule is a “manual of practices through which believers can structure their lives around prayer, the Word of God, and the ever-deepening awareness that, as the saint says, ‘The divine presence is everywhere, and that “the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and evil in every place”’”(Prov. 15:3). In that chapter he highlights the need to reintroduce order in life (54-57), the call to constant prayer (57-60), the spiritual vocation of work before and unto the Lord (60-62), the ascetical discipline that cuts against our self-centeredness (63-65), a renewed rootedness and concern for developing lives of stability in an increasingly fluid world of social relations (65-67), a reinvestment in the fruit-bearing form of community life (67-71), the prudent and generous praxis of hospitality (71-74), and, finally, a sense of balance amongst the varied goods of this life (74-75). Only by thinking through these myriad facets of life, Dreher says, can we find our way back to a thick Christianity with robust formative practices.
Dreher then turns in subsequent chapters to address key arenas for discipleship, both good and bad. He calls for renewing and thickening our Christian practices in the realm of politics (ch. 4), church (ch. 5), the neighborhood (ch. 6), education (ch. 7), vocation (ch. 8), sexuality (ch. 9), and technology (ch. 10). In each chapter Dreher seeks to assess ways in which “everyday asceticism” (115, 192) will reshape the lives of individuals and communities. His examples are mixed and varied, which means they can tilt toward the anecdotal at times, but which also shows that he is not suggesting some sort of homogenous heading for the distant hills. At times he presumes the position of what he is, a white man with economic resources and a significant educational preparation, without saying much by way of what those with less socio-cultural, educational, or economic clout might do. There are undoubtedly limits to his analysis, not least its exegetical thinness and overriding dependence on the anecdote. But the variety of illustrations and the engagement of a host of commentators and religious or philosophical thinkers helps provide a lively and thought-provoking sketch of key terrain. And various ideas regarding ways of developing thick formation are worth considering.
How does Dreher tie together these protocols and strategies? He began the book with a warning of the “great flood” and, unsurprisingly, turns to the image of the church as ark at its conclusion. Some might suggest that this inherently involves an unchristian failure of nerve. But two observations should caution us at this point. First, ark imagery has remarkable pedigree in the Christian tradition, precisely because it has biblical warrant (1 Pet. 3:20-21). Second, Dreher explicitly contextualizes the ark imagery with that of the wellspring.
“The church, then, is both Ark and Wellspring—and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But he also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the water of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of his grace. You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously” (238).
Being guarded from external threats must be matched by being revived internally by Christ’s own life-giving presence. “The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is. Benedictine spirituality teaches us to bear with the world in love and to transform it as the Holy Spirit transforms us” (77). Repeatedly, he calls us to take these kinds of thick practices “out of the monastery” for the sake of the church and her surrounding culture (77, 93-94, 98, 125, 236). He suggests certain ways of doing so, that we might then take our witness faithfully to the world as well.
III. Culture, Church, and Formation: Reflections on The Benedict Option
How might we reflect on and with the Benedict Option about culture, church, and Christian formation? I suggest we do well to think about three key areas in which readers of this journal might consider Dreher’s book. We will reflect on his depiction of thick discipleship, the place of the church, and the significance of institutions – in each case noting the main thrusts of his argument, some limitations therein, as well as ways in which they might be extended or re-directed by principles and protocols fundamental to Reformed faith and practice.
First, classical Reformed Christianity has always attested that the way of Jesus must be a way of wholeness. Indeed, the beginning point of the Westminster Shorter Catechism alerts us to this thick commitment to which we are all summoned. “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and to enjoy him forever” (WSC 1). The glory of God is our end. No, the glory of God is our chief end, such that it orients all other ends and, therefore, has universal significance as we think about the deployment of our minds and bodies, our affections and reason, our relationships and our work, our resources and our time, our churches and our communities, our families and our frustrations. The lordship of God over all things drives a piety that is all-encompassing and brokers no supplements or qualifications. Reformed Christians have only advanced a deeply biblical principle with these affirmations, for the most elemental teaching of the Old Testament was: “Hear, O Israel, the lord your God, the lord is one. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). Whereas the gods of Egypt, Canaan, and Modernity are content with thin attention, this God of Israel’s Covenant is jealous for his namesake.
Dreher’s concern for thick discipleship or what we might call orthopraxy, along with the significance of orthodoxy raised by Douthat’s aforementioned volume, resonates with the Reformed concern to address both the rule of faith and rule of love. Again, the Shorter Catechism points in this direction: “What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man” (WSC 3). We not only confess grace but we learn that God communicates graciously to us in providing every good gift in every area of life (Jas. 1:17). And the source of all goodness will be the one to whom all good things return in our stewardship and sacrifice of praise (so Rom. 11:33-12:2).
There are all sorts of danger intrinsic to this kind of approach, wherein a thick culture of discipleship can pick up extrinsic cultural baggage and go thus the way of a theological colonialism. But the gauntlet must be run, and we must do our best vigilantly to see that we convey the totality or wholeness (that is, the catholicity) of the Scriptures, for “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This belief about Scripture’s nature prompted the same author’s practice regarding its commendation, for Paul elsewhere attests that he proclaimed the “whole counsel of God” unto the Ephesians congregants (Acts 20:26). Maturity – being equipped, growing up, competence – is the name of the game in Christian discipleship. Reformed theology seeks to instill this sort of Christian wholeness as the calling of, provision for, and privilege of every brother and sister. It is neither the possession only of the elite or the ordained, but it is also not only the supplemental stage reached as an optional extra. Jesus desires us to be whole and complete, “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Reformed theological principles will only augment and further detail the kind of thick discipleship, taking in every nook and cranny of our human existence, as suggested by Dreher here.
Second, classical Reformed Christianity identifies the church as the context and means through which God equips men and women, adults and children, for maturity and ministry. Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4:7-16 proves fundamental here (and is identified as such Dreher, 142). Dreher is right to observe that churches must be communities of spiritual formation if other networks, associations, and families are to be transformed. Thick discipleship must take the form, then, of fostering deeper commitment to the ministry of the means of grace and the rhythms of congregational life and witness.
One can wish that Dreher began further back, rooting his anecdotes and observations in biblical principles that at least hinted at a scope, sequence, and order that was determined by scripture and the nature of the Christian gospel rather than the amalgamated struggles of the present. The overly anecdotal tone of the book would have been given a more philosophically coherent shape in so doing. Assumedly, other facets of moral formation would have arisen (e.g. evangelism would be inherent to the task of dethroning self-interest and taking up the way of the cross). And elements that were raised would be addressed in a more nuanced manner (e.g. worship would not be discussed merely as a form of social formation but, primarily, about testifying fittingly to God and his works).
Perhaps most important in receiving Dreher’s concern would be a deeper catholic and Reformed commitment to always begin with God and to root all human action—even that of the church’s care of her own—in the living agency of the Risen One. Dreher’s diagnosis points to human flaws of varying sorts (internal and external, contemporary and quite old in pedigree). By and large, his prescription also turns wholly on human social formation. God is not the subject of many verbs in this volume. (This is not a unique problem here. A similar timidity to speak of divine agency also limits the theological tone of James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, at least as seen thus far in his Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom.) This is not a statement suggesting that the kind of thick formation called for here is not companionable to a rich account divine provision and ongoing grace. Far from it. A Reformed ecclesiology, such as one finds in Martin Bucer’s 1538 treatise Concerning the True Care of Souls, could provide a framework for much that is sketched here. But it is a bit odd for a volume that commends prayerfulness and other practices as means of being alert to the presence of God and, in so doing, actually lacks much of the presence of God in its own prose. God is direct object, to be sure, the target of our prayer and confession, our devotion and self-denial. But there is precious little of God as subject here: not only crucified but also risen, not only the Christological example but also the Triune King of Glory.
Attending first and foremost to the way in which the gospel provides not only the content of our confession but the means of its communication, by Christ through the Spirit, should also help regulate Dreher’s musings and their sometimes anecdotal character. Again, this is not to say that the problem is so much him veering toward foolish or unwise judgments, though it is to say that he addresses fairly contingent circumstances without a wider biblical framework by which to suggest how others might think and act prudently in very different terrain. Chief among the means of grace is the unique role played by the inspired testimony recorded for us by the Prophets and Apostles in the Holy Scriptures. John Calvin also wanted to bring the rhythms of monastic practice into the everyday experience of ordinary Genevans (see Matthew Myer Boulton’s Life in God), though he believed that they must pass through the sieve of Scripture alone (ensuring that ecclesiastical exercises had divine warrant, not merely the allure of human ingenuity, and also realizing that their form may well vary in diverse congregations or family settings). In the Reformed tradition, we would say that this is where the doctrine of Christian Liberty is fundamental within the church as well as society (see WCF 20.2): for example, many men and women will be in positions such that they deem Christian classical schools to be either nonexistent, inaccessible, or even less than ideal for their children, and the biblical call that their children be raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord ought not be suggested as involving such a particular judgment or mandate.
As Reformed Christians engage Dreher, they will want to share his concern for thick discipleship and its roots in churchly formation, but they will want to patiently consider ways in which God promises to grow Christians and form them by his means of grace. Doing so will guard us from falling prey to a sociological semi-Pelagianism. Doing so will also prompt us to attend to God’s revealed program for maturing Christian men and women and, in that way, seeing brothers and sisters equipped for prudent discernment of ways in which they, their families, and their communities will seek to remember the Lord. Doing so, finally, will give us biblical guidance for how to encourage and exhort one another when we find ourselves gaining ground or losing territory in our witness, our families, our churches, and our realms of influence. Re-immersing the Christian imagination in the Psalms, for example, will provide the protocols of instilling appropriate affective and intellectual intuitions to virtually all situations. I can’t help but think that Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection, helping form men and women to be attentive to the agency of God present in our midst, provides a more promising way forward as it follows the text of Ephesians and always filters sociological study and personal anecdote through the living and active Word of God.
Third, Dreher’s book rightly points to the significance of attending not only to individual formation but also to the pivotal role played by institutions, especially those which might be termed mediating institutions between the individual/family and the larger government/nation. He attends to the church and the neighborhood/city, and he reflects on the claim that it takes a village to raise a Christian (122-123). His comments are especially insightful in noting that we need to support the integrity of family structure amidst the challenges brought by the sexual revolution (not only the LGBT and transgender movements of late but, much earlier, the revolution wrought by no-fault divorce) without lapsing into idolizing the family and reminding ourselves of the theological and moral importance of other mediating structures, especially the ekklesia (128-129). Dreher also commends sacrificial giving (of time, treasure, and talent) that these kinds of mediating institutions (churches, schools, and so forth) are available for Christian men, women, and children in places of plenty and of plight. For instance, his call toward Christian classical education is not merely a suggestion that parents ought to commit to it, but that Christians ought to philanthropically support it for others as well. Even if we have noted ways in which this should be tempered as but one strategic option, we must also appreciate that he is calling for a churchly mindset that views one’s own resources as stewarded for the greater good rather than just the privilege of the upper classes. Dreher summons us to sacrificially investing in institutions that will shape the good neighborhood and the faithful church.
We do well to conclude by noting how this applies to seminary education. Dreher’s diagnosis marks the reality of the study of divinity in higher education. There are external threats: a seemingly all-pervasive cultural malformation in consumerist, individualist, and moralist directions, above all marked by its utter absence of attention to the presence of the Risen Christ. There are even more insidious internal struggles: greater biblical illiteracy, unfamiliarity with basic patterns of Christian maturity (oftentimes due to broken homes), underdeveloped catechesis regarding the faith and practice of the Christian way, celebration of the juvenile and exaltation of the seeker, and precious little by way of spiritual disciplines or the kind of “everyday asceticism” commended by Dreher. Not only are the students more challenged today, but the ministry calling grows increasingly complex, owing to the globalization, mobility and fluidity, the all-pervasiveness of social media and the internet culture, the shrill and polarizing environment of political and religious discourse in our wider culture, and the decreasing number of Christians in the modern West. As Tim Keller has said, pastors today need more training, not less.
Seminary education must provide thicker discipleship in partnership with local churches and presbyteries (or their ecclesiastical equivalent in other traditions). Seminary training likely takes in students who know and do less than those of years past, though they must wind up knowing more and being competent in a wider array of theological and social skills. That is not to say that the moral fiber of seminarians has dropped; indeed, to be an orthodox Christian today likely involves a more resolute conviction than would have been demanded a generation or two ago, so many theological students display a notable zeal and conviction. But their culture has been a malnourished one in so many cases: fewer know the joy of weekly Sabbath rhythms, precious little catechetical training has been undergone, and biblical literacy, much less familiarity with the prayer and hymns of the church’s past, has waned greatly.
Seminaries thus have a high calling to imagine, design, and resource thick conduits of formation for ministry, so that these men and women will be competent to help serve and equip others for the work of Christian service or diakonia (Eph. 4:12). Theological students must devote themselves resolutely to the hard work of walking in their Master’s way, but the challenge is not theirs alone. Education and churchly leadership are concerns for the whole body. Therefore, provision and support for this kind of thick preparation must come from the church more broadly. Just as Dreher conveys the importance of all members committing to make primary and secondary education effectively available to all Christians in ways that are conducive to their spiritual formation, so we could observe that the support of theological higher education that serves the church ought to be a priority of the church as a whole.
- Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017). ↑
- David Brooks, “The Benedict Option,” New York Times (March 14, 2017), section A, page 23. ↑
- Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument At Home and Abroad (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994). ↑
- Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). ↑
- See especially Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge: Belknap, 2012); John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (2nd ed.; Oxford: Blackwell, 2006). ↑
- See especially Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (3rd ed.; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007); Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom: How the Church Is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991). ↑
- Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012). ↑
- The word “perfect” (téleiós) here connotes completeness, wholeness, and maturity rather than an absolutely sinless perfection. This is why the Epistle to the Hebrews can speak of Jesus becoming “perfect” (2:9; 5:9), a development which would otherwise be alarmingly absurd given that he was born immaculate and unstained by original sin. ↑
- James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies 1; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); idem, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies 2; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). See a series of reviews at http://zondervanacademic.com/blog/tag/james-k-a-smith/. ↑
- Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls (trans. Peter Beale; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009). ↑
- Matthew Myer Boulton, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). ↑
- Other examples might be mentioned. I raise this one as someone who is myself an advocate of Christian classical education, yet one who knows that such decisions are matters of prudence and of opportunity. ↑
- Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010). ↑