Review: ‘The Benedict Option’ by Rod Dreher

(October 2018)

Released early last year, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a post-Christian Nation has been heralded as one of the most important books about religion in recent times.

Its author has acquired a large following on both sides of the Atlantic, and given how it was published shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, many readers have looked to it to get a sense of what conservative Christians in America are thinking at this tumultuous time.

Yet as its full title might suggest, this is not a political book. Nor is it a particularly positive one for Christian readers.  

“The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West,” Dreher writes early on. “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America.”

Critics of Christian values or mores might take heart from this, and Dreher is well-placed to make such an assessment, given his long career as a leading writer on religious, political and cultural matters in the US.

The evidence which he cites for his proposition is all around us: in the plummeting rates of church affiliation and attendance among younger people; in the growing hostility towards any public manifestation of faith; in the alarming ignorance on the part of professed Christians about their own religion; as well as in the widespread acceptance of ideas by supposedly Christian populations which are antithetical to Christianity as it has existed for 2,000 years.

Dreher writes as an astute observer of the ‘culture wars’ in the United States, which have over the last forty years seen most ardent Christians – be they Evangelicals or Catholics – allying themselves to the Republican Party in the hope of preserving traditional values.

This trend still exists today, and is one of the main reasons why Hillary Clinton is not President and Donald Trump is.  

However, the author does not view this as a significant point in history at all, and he sees Trump as a symptom of America’s moral degradation, rather than as a possible cure.

To Dreher, the culture war was lost long ago, along with the public square, and many of the great institutions which had previously passed on values and beliefs for centuries.

To try to remedy all of this would be a hopeless effort. Instead, Dreher summons up a biblical metaphor by referring to the rising tide, and the need to build an ark in which Christianity can be preserved come what may. This, he argues, should take priority over any other type of political engagement.

“Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation,” he writes.

He suggests that such communities could take inspiration from St. Benedict of Norcia, a sixth-century saint venerated for his role as a founder of the monastic tradition within Christianity.

Benedict lived in Rome in the dying days of the Empire. Though it was still the political and cultural centre of Western Europe, the young man felt the need to leave a city overcome with sin and vice. He retreated to the mountains, and to a life of work and prayer.

His example inspired many others to join him, and the precepts outlined within the Rule of Saint Benedict have been used throughout the world’s monasteries ever since.

Had he stayed in Rome, Benedict would surely have never had such an influence, and Christianity might not have survived the Dark Ages which were to follow.

Much of the rest of the book focuses on examples of small groups of Christians who attempt to live their lives in communities imbued with a similar spirit, but which exist outside the confines of traditional monasteries.  

The communities which he examines are from the three main branches of Christianity – Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism – and Dreher highlights the importance of building ecumenical links between the churches (hardly surprising for a cradle Protestant from Louisiana who converted to Catholicism before moving on to Eastern Orthodoxy).

One group of Italian Catholics whom he meets are known as the Tipi Loschi. This official association was formed by a coming-together of some families and friends twenty five years ago. Now, the 200 members operate their own school, and several co-operatives. The focus is on living, working and praying together, and the community has stood the test of time.

Dreher also writes about Christian campus centres in America which exist to provide a social support for young people in universities.  

Every disparate group of Christians which he encounters and puts forward as an example of how the Benedict Option can be applied faithfully is alike in a number of important ways, regardless of where they live or what particular creed they profess.

Though they are part of the world, they remain distinct from it in important ways, and the social support infrastructure which is in place allows community members to raise their children in an environment where they have a good chance of passing on their faith to them.

Interestingly, the need to improve Christian education, and the declining quality of schools and universities, is a recurring theme for Dreher. So too is the sizeable shift towards homeschooling which has occurred among American Christians over the last few decades – many of whom were concerned about the negative influences which their children were being exposed to in traditional schools, and even in schools which are ostensibly Christian.

Never one to sugar-coat, Dreher does not shy away from writing about the financial and professional costs which Christians might have to pay in the coming decades. To mitigate this problem, he recommends greater economic solidarity among Christians, while cautioning believers to be wise in their choice of battles in the years to come, and warning that some professions may well be off-limits entirely in the short to medium-term future.

This has particular relevance to Ireland, as the coming months will determine whether or not GPs and other medical professionals will be forced to participate in abortions, or to refer patients to other doctors who will.

Heartbreaking as it will be to many, it may be the case that young Christians looking to pursue such careers may be forced to do so elsewhere, or to choose alternative career paths.

Events in Irish student unions in recent years have already set a precedent for driving Christians out of certain roles, just as they have demonstrated that a significant percentage of the population has no objection to such overt bigotry.

The book poses other questions to Irish readers, too, and it deserves particular attention from younger Christians. The referendum in May was ample proof – if ever it were needed – that Ireland is now in a post-Christian era, and one which requires careful navigation in both the professional and social spheres.

Could the approach which Dreher advocates be a means of preserving Christian belief in an Ireland which frowns upon it?

There is some evidence to suggest that communities molded along similar lines have already begun to take shape.

True, the churches here are growing emptier, and will continue to do so for the next few decades as older generations depart this earthly stage.

But some churches are not witnessing such declines, particularly in parishes and church organisations where a defeatist attitude has not been allowed to set in, and where congregations are bound together by a sense of shared belief that some things are worth fighting for, and that some concessions cannot be made.

St. Kevin’s Church in Dublin’s Portobello area is one example of this. Located in one of the most socially liberal communities in the country, regular church services are sparsely attended.

But on Sunday morning, the Latin Mass draws a very different congregation, one which is unusually large, unusually young, and unusually attentive. Many travel from far away to attend the Mass as it was said for centuries: for them, the option of ‘moving with the times’ does not appear to be attractive.

Some other churches throughout Dublin exhibit similar features.

There are also a wide range of activities aimed at young people going on throughout the city: Living Water events in St. Teresa’s Church just off Grafton Street sometimes attract hundreds of visitors; the Notre Dame – Newman Centre for Faith and Reason is a hive of activity on Stephen’s Green and events in the city centre such as The Encounter or Nightfever are also popular.

The home-schooling issue also presents an interesting comparison. Though this is rare here, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is growing in popularity. Interestingly, two of the most articulate and well-known Catholic voices in modern Ireland – Maria Steen and Breda O’Brien – home-school their children. Perhaps that is a sign of a growing trend.

None of this should mask the fact that Christians in Ireland are now witnessing the twilight era of their religion, which was once widely practiced, and which will become ever-more marginalised in the coming decades.

But Irish history is replete with examples of how the faith which St. Patrick sowed has endured catastrophic defeats, only to rise again. What the Norse, the Tudors, Cromwell and the Penal Laws could not stamp out is unlikely to be extirpated entirely in the coming years either, dark and difficult though they may be.

Dreher would likely relate, having lived through a much slower process of decline in the United States. But in observing the growing community spirit among Ireland’s Christians, he would likely see hope as well.

And it is very noticeable that The Benedict Option, having contained such a gloomy overview of the current period, ends on an optimistic note.

Dreher describes how the modern-day monks of Norcia recently escaped death when their monastery was destroyed by an earthquake. But it will not remain in that condition for long.

“Now they can begin rebuilding amid the ruins, their resilient Benedictine faith teaching them to receive this catastrophe as a call to deeper holiness and sacrifice. God willing, new life will one day spring forth from the rubble. Because they lived the Benedict Option in the good times, they built within themselves the stability and resilience to endure the worst time – and to begin again, in God’s time.”