The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Generally speaking, I liked this book. But in full disclosure, I liked the book at the beginning a lot more than I did at the end.
The opening of this book is an examination of the current state of Christian life, especially in the United States, but also throughout the world. Mr. Dreher talks about the culture war and the sharp division between politics and religion, not because of a “wall of separation,” but because those two spheres are rapidly growing incompatible. This part of the book almost perfectly encapsulates my impression and understanding of the current political climate for morally conservative Christians.
From there, though, the rest of the book is a little scattershot. Don’t get me wrong; it’s full of very good advice. Almost everything he says about taking the Benedict option is on point. It both convicts and encourages us to do what we can–or what we must–to remain faithfully Christian in a nation that separates itself from us. But in many ways, the book came across lacking a driving focus.
First, a minor grammatical issue: almost as soon as Mr. Dreher promises to use little-O “orthodox” to refer to morally conservative Christians, he uses capital-O “Orthodox” to do so (e.g., pages 78 and 82). By context, it’s clear he does not mean Eastern Orthodox Christians, but simply orthodox Christians. Little things like this are distracting for me, but probably will go unnoticed for most.
Throughout the book, Mr. Dreher refers to his contemporaries by name; to be honest, I don’t follow politics, religious news, blogs, or commentary closely enough to know who any of them were. But for Mr. Dreher, a quick name-drop will do, leaving me to wonder who this person is (or was, in some cases) and why their opinion is relevant on this subject. Even when he introduces people well, he may refer to them again several chapters later with no introduction at all. It can be difficult to follow.
Mr. Dreher’s sense of ecumenism is appreciated, but ultimately a little stilted and awkward. He encourages camaraderie among Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians, as well as Jewish and Mormon faithful, for the sake of opposing an anti-religious political sphere–but he simultaneously points out the philosophical progression from nominalism to Protestantism to modernism to postmodernism and the nihilistic philosophies that drive a wedge between political and religious life in the US. He also glosses over his own conversion, first to Roman Catholicism and later to Eastern Orthodoxy. I’m not complaining that he seeks the truth while recognizing the need for working together, but as I mentioned above, in the book, his ecumenism seems stilted, like he was about to say more, but cut himself off.
Late in the book, there’s a chapter on sexual mores that seems completely out of left field. I think the point was to encourage us to teach our children about traditional marriage, but it seems completely out of context for the Benedict Option (who is reading this book with an eye toward cooperating in its plan but thinks they don’t need to raise their children in the faith?). It’s also an opportunity for Mr. Dreher to make some curious claims that he doesn’t justify (e.g., that the Church, or part of it, has been cruel and unjust in the way it opposes sexual sins).
There’s also a chapter on technology. In many ways, I agree with it–Mr. Dreher rightly calls out the problems in the (post-)modern approach to science and technology, i.e., that our society often pursues something because we can without ever stopping to ask whether we should. But Mr. Dreher conflates this with all technology, leading to an encouragement of a lifestyle that seems almost Amish in its denial of modernity. It’s true that technology poses significant risks to the devout Christian life, especially when it is abused–but much of technology is also useful for the faith.
I think this is a good book, but it misses a few marks that might have made it a great book. I think we should heed some of Mr. Dreher’s advice, and strengthen our communities of faith as the storm approaches–once it’s here in force, it may be too late to batten down the hatches.