A closer look at ‘The Benedict Option’ yields suggestions worth considering

And though I feel mostly at home in modern culture, my emphatic opinion that Christianity has self-evidently been more of a boon than a bane to civilization puts me at odds with many secular progressives. In vivid ways, my entire intellectual and religious life has been forged in the increasingly irreconcilable conflict between the Christian past and what Dreher sees as an anti-Christian future. The issue has renewed salience because Rod Dreher wrote a best-selling book about how traditionalist Christians should respond to their loss of cultural influence. (RNS) Last week I wrote about the imperative to keep the culture war’s losers engaged in public life. The unfortunate result of decayed religion in a secular age is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a term coined by sociologists but which proves the fiercest enemy in Dreher’s analysis. I came to “The Benedict Option” as a writer engaged in debates about religion in public life. He makes a fairly strong, if unfashionable, case for medieval ways of thinking that are arguably at least as enlightened as our own. Dreher simply argues for cultivating a worldview, spiritual practices and habits of mind drawn from historic Christianity rather than from atomized, relativist and religiously individualist post-modern values. And while Dreher appreciated my broad-minded tolerance, he challenged me to actually read his book, “The Benedict Option.”
Happily, I did. “If Christians today do not stand firm on the rock of sacred order as revealed in our holy tradition, we will have nothing to stand on at all,” he warns. Dostoyevsky said, “The second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.” “The Benedict Option” got me thinking critically about how I might inculcate better habits in my children. But his analysis is provocative and his suggestions merit serious consideration, regardless of how dismal things actually are. I am not sure whether the Christian past holds the keys to human flourishing in our time. Lewis’ critique of scientism in a way that is accessible and compelling. Dreher takes readers on a brief tour of Western intellectual history from the smoldering ruins of the Roman Empire to the cultural rot of our own time. I used Dreher’s book as a jumping-off point for my argument that government, media, business and the arts should be hospitable to the untold millions who will continue to hold traditional beliefs about sex and God. Indeed, readers who expect Dreher to lay the blame with same-sex marriage or gender-neutral bathrooms will be disappointed. Post-Christian ways of thinking took root so many centuries ago that by now, even most church people in the West accept them without even realizing it. But Dreher gives me reasonable doubt that the future we are embracing will be much better. Dreher has plenty of critics, and many of them have thoughtful objections to his analysis. He generally overlooks nonwhite Christian voices, and his defensiveness and dismissiveness toward concerns about his racial blinders are unbecoming. Here, Dreher channels C.S. My formation in mainline Protestantism approximated Moralistic Therapeutic Deism more than I would like to admit. The book ends with a stinging critique of the soul-numbing effects of our technology and devices. He takes aim, perhaps more timidly than some would like, at conservative Christians’ uncritical enthusiasm for capitalism. While I spend little time worrying about whether Rod Dreher’s prognosis for American civilization is too dark, I actually worry a great deal about my children’s future and what my wife and I should be doing to prepare them for it. But I could not help reading the book as a man approaching middle age with three young children. In telling the stories of communities that are living out forms of the Benedict Option, Dreher invites readers to think about whether and how they might incorporate some of these principles into their own lives. I still find Dreher’s assessment of the present situation in “The Benedict Option” too gloomy. Predictably, things keep getting worse, and in his telling we stand on the precipice of a very dark age. Biblical, revealed religion is just not going to withstand the scientific, philosophical and ethical attacks against it. He is more distraught about how MTD has replaced religion in our society, even infecting most churches. “Though superficially Christian,” Dreher writes, “MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the self and material comfort.”
Those who think Dreher will defend right-wing politics and conspicuous consumption will also be surprised.