Readers of this blog have likely heard of the Benedict Option, propounded by Rod Dreher as a Christian response to a crumbling society. The thinking behind it harks back 1500 years to the monastic order founded by Benedict of Nursia. The monasteries founded by the Benedictines as the Roman Empire collapsed became important strongholds of Christian thought, arts, and learning amid the barbarism of the dark ages. Dreher argues that we are facing a similar societal collapse—the fall of Western Civilization—and that Christians will need to band together in intentional communities in order to preserve Christian thought and culture.
Three Ben Op Principles
Although Dreher has written and spoken about the Benedict Option for years, it wasn’t until the last year or so, amid the collapse of the institution of marriage and the increasing acceptance of transgenderism, that the idea began to generate a great deal of interest and discussion. Along with the discussion came mischaracterizations and clarifications, the most recent of which was posted by Alan Jacobs, a distinguished professor at Baylor University. Jacobs clarifies the Benedict Option by stating it in terms of three principles:
- The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.
- In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.
- Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.
Based on these principles, Jacobs draws his conclusion:
If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.
Jacobs then challenges any dissenters to respond to these principles or the conclusion that follows from them. I would like to humbly accept that challenge. First, though, let me address what I believe is a common but invalid argument against the Benedict Option.
In the World But Not Of the World
John 17:14-15 records Jesus’ teaching regarding the Christian’s relationship with the culture: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” From these verses come the teaching that Christians are to be “in the world, but not of the world”. It has been popular for Christians to raise this as a banner for “redeeming the culture” or “missional engagement”—identifying themselves with popular subcultures as a sort of Christian trojan horse strategy. I suspect it is from these quarters that the “Ben Op” receives the most opposition.
I don’t believe this is what Jesus was praying for his disciples to accomplish. In fact, in the verses following, Jesus emphasizes the “otherness” of his followers. Their mission was to be sanctified “set apart” through the truth so that they could make an impact on the world. It was the early Christians differentness from the world that allowed them to attract the lost to the gospel.
Fortunately in some ways, I believe the “try to fit in with the popular culture” game is over. Perceptive liberals are exceedingly aware of the weakness of Christians who are afraid to be viewed as unpopular. That’s why the “wrong side of history” argument was so devastating to many. Mark Tushnet, liberal legal scholar at Harvard, urges liberals to take advantage of this weakness and go for the throat in a take-no-prisoners approach as the self-proclaimed victors of the culture wars.
Objection #1: The Wheat Is Mixed With the Weeds
Sadly, many Christians don’t realize how weak they have become. Even when the marriage amendment passed, many continued down the easy path of cultural acceptance. “It doesn’t really affect me,” they might have thought. I once hoped that the forcing of transgenderism on the public might be a wakeup call for Christians transfixed by the siren call of popular culture, but it seems that most have been under the influence of the media for too long and have unconsciously accepted the culture’s values as “the good life”.
For this reason, my first objection to the Benedict Option is rooted in its dependence on committed, thoughtful Christians to form tight-knit communities of faith sheltered from the moral implosion of society. How many American Christians do you know that would be willing to take such a radical step? Most of the Christians I’m aware of are having a grand time riding the party train of popular culture. Can they be persuaded to leave the glamour and excitement that it promises for a more quiet, reflective lifestyle? I seriously doubt it.
Objection #2: Christian Institutions Are Not Safe
Further, I believe the very existence of Christian organizations is in jeopardy. The original Benedictine strategy relied on the founding of monasteries—communities organized for the purpose of nurturing and protecting Christian thought. Even in the superstition of the dark ages, these monasteries were revered as holy places and allowed to operate in peace.
Not so with Christian organizations in the future of America. Already a bill has been introduced in the California legislature that would shut down at least 34 Christian universities that have asked for exemption from LGBT anti-discrimination laws on the basis of their faith. Christian organizations have been the targets of harassment and injustices with increasing frequency. It is becoming clear that in the future there will be no safe havens for the cultivation of Christian community and thought in America.
Objection #3: This is Not the Fall of Rome
Edward Gibbon, author of the defining work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire attributes the underlying cause of the fall of Rome to the decline of public virtue. The Roman Republic depended on an engaged populace and a disciplined military mindset in order to maintain its conquests. The natural result of the wealth and power that the Roman empire achieved was a lifestyle marked by luxury and excess, consequently leaving Rome weakened and susceptible to barbarian invasion.
America in particular has traversed the same arc of hard work, success, and entitlement, albeit in a much shorter time span than that of the Roman Empire. However, the similarities between the two merely exist on the surface level. The enemies that threaten society today are not the same as those that threatened the Roman empire. Even after the fall of Rome, Christianity was largely welcomed across Europe, and the Church became central to the medieval lifestyle. The enemies of Western Civilization have targeted in particular the Judeo-Christian ethic upon which it was built. Christian’s today can’t just stand aside and wait until the political skirmishes die down. We are not primarily experiencing a political collapse but a moral and religious one.
The Exodus Option: An Alternative Proposal
The question that the Benedict Option is trying to answer is, “How should Christians respond to a morally collapsing society?” In spite of the objections above, I find myself quite in sympathy with the impetus behind the Benedict Option. In fact, my objections are not with the principles outlined by Jacobs, but with the assumption that creating pockets of Christian thought within America is even going to be an option. From that perspective, I would like to suggest that we explore the example of Lot in Genesis as a source of potential guidance in answering the question of a Christian response to a morally collapsing society.
In Genesis 13, we find Lot and Abraham making an agreement to settle in different areas of Canaan. Lot was attracted to the well-watered plain of the Jordan valley, and chose to live near Sodom. Even in that day, the biblical record notes that ” the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Genesis 13:13). Apparently over time Lot became an influential member of society, as he was one of the men who sat in the gate of the city (where official matters took place) according to Genesis 19:1). Nevertheless, Lot remained righteous, “greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked” (2 Peter 2.8). But although Scripture commends his righteousness, it does not go so far as to commend Lot for remaining in Sodom. In fact, 2 Peter 2 goes on to suggest that God had to intervene in order to prevent Lot from continuing “day after day . . . tormenting his righteous soul”.
According the Genesis 19, God rescued Lot by sending angels to forcibly extract Lot from Sodom, along with his wife and daughters. Lot and his family did not emerge from this experience unscathed, however. Lot’s wife’s heart had been captured by the popular culture of Sodom, and she turned back, experiencing God’s judgment along with Sodom. Lot’s daughters also evidenced corrupted morals when they intoxicated their father and seduced him. The culture of Sodom was comfortable but soul-killing.
In contrast, God rewarded Abraham for choosing to follow Him instead of the pleasures to be found in Sodom. Although many of us did not choose to live in America, at some point we will face a similar choice: whether to remain in the comfortable but corrupting culture or exercise the Exodus Option and find a safe haven for Christian community elsewhere. Is America far from being like Sodom? The answer is becoming increasingly clear. We cannot permit ourselves to be gradually desensitized by the powerful influence of the attractive but anti-Christian popular culture. Let’s remember that we are “strangers and sojourners on the earth” and count ourselves among the company of the Pilgrims who were willing to count their heavenly citizenship above their earthly homeland. We would do well to begin planning our own exit strategy.