The Benedict Option?

Rod Dreher's proposed “Benedict Option” has generated much pre-publication comment in print and social media. Some like it, some don't. Some have accepted it already, others have proposed revisions and tweaks. The main criticisms are twofold at this point.

-First, Dreher's claims of persecution are misguided and play on fear.
-Second, his proposal is a withdrawal from engagement with society.

Dreher does believes that a progressive secular world is clamping down on various forms of Christian expression and institutions (marriage, family) and the church must respond now or its only going to get worse. The survival of the church in North America is at stake!

I suspect some of this is last-gasp Christendom thinking kicking and screaming for its (doomed) life. But where Dreher goes beyond this critique and his proposal gains traction is that he recognizes that unrestrained crony capitalism is leeching the life out our institutions, particularly the family. And the family is his entry point into his subject.

And he's not wrong about the economy's effect on the family and other institutions, as far as I can see. His Benedict Option is aimed at combating the erosion and thinning out of life the economy effects. This is where reflection on his work should focus. This is the most crucial reality in the life of the American church. Any viable vision of church for our time most enable us to break the hold consumerism has on us and develop thicker relationships and networks between and among us to be worth the effort. This must be at the forefront of any effort to address the future of the church and the family here.

And that means worship lies at the heart of the Benedict Option. In worship we are formed to become people who can resist the consumeristic erosion of witness mentioned above. Much like Bonhoeffer's insistence on the need for an “arcane discipline” (worship) at the heart of the worldliness or non-religious way of being Christian he advocated, Dreher posits worship as the well-spring from where the transformative power of Christian faith is encountered.

Does Dreher advocate withdrawal from cultural engagement in this model of being church? This depends on what you mean by engagement. If you believe that the public sector and its processes and protocols is the primary arena for the church's social witness (as both right and left have done) and that “responsibility” means taking charge of or effectively using these processes and protocols to do “justice.”

Dreher does not see it this way. He does not eschew this kind of activity (as far as I can tell). But his sense of responsibility and engagement of culture is different. He sees the church's primary responsibility to the culture to be the church – a distinctive community offering a way of life the reflects the character and will of God. From that sense of identity the church then engages the world. Whatever can and may be done politically can and should be done (I presume). But that should not be a first or primary strategy. The primary mode of engagement is what Bonhoeffer called immersion in the everyday-ness of life, helping and serving others rather than dominating or dictating.

My hunch is that the way we have engaged culture is the way we like and are comfortable with (even though we don't often do it very well). The thought of seriously becoming a church intentionally and seriously working against our economic captivity to globalistic capitalism seems far from what we have been taught is a “religious” or “Christian” concern. A concern that we neither know how or want to engage. Thus we resist ideas like the Benedict Option. But as I said above, this is where the rubber hits the road for American Christianity. And I think that's worth taking seriously.


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