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The Benedict Option: A Strategy for…
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The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

by Rod Dreher

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488834,904 (3.71)3
In a radical vision for the future of Christianity, American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher calls on American Christians to prepare for the coming Dark Age by embracing an ancient Christian way of life. From the inside, American churches are hollowed out by the departure of young people and by an insipid pseudo-Christianity. From the outside, they are beset by challenges to religious liberty in a rapidly secularizing culture. Keeping Hillary Clinton out of the White House might have bought a brief reprieve from the state's assault, but it will not stop the West's slide into decadence and dissolution. Rod Dreher argues that the way forward is actually the way back -- all the way to St. Benedict of Nursia. This sixth-century monk, horrified by the moral chaos following Rome's fall, retreated to the forest and created a new way of life for Christians. He built enduring Christian communities based on principles of order, hospitality, stability, and prayer. His spiritual centers of hope were strongholds of light throughout the Dark Ages, and saved not just Christianity but Western civilization. Today, a new, post-Christian barbarism reigns. Many believers are blind to it, and their churches are too weak to resist. Politics offers little help in this spiritual crisis. What is needed is the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church. The goal: to embrace exile from mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture. This book is both manifesto and rallying cry for Christians who, if they are not to be conquered, must learn how to fight on culture war battlefields like none the West has seen for fifteen hundred years. The Benedict Option is for all mere Christians -- Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox -- who can read the signs of the times. Neither false optimism nor fatalistic despair will do. Only faith, hope, and love, embodied in a renewed church and resilient culture, can sustain believers in the dark age that has overtaken us. These are the days for building strong arks for the long journey across a sea of night.… (more)

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A call, rooted in the final line of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue looking for a new, and doubtless different St. Benedict, for Christians to...

...strategically create robust community to sustain their faith and hand it on to their children?
...lick their wounds from the culture war, strategically retreat while advocating for religious liberty, until a better day comes?
...save "Western civilization," or the particularly triumphalist view of Western civilization fostered among the Western European and American elites until recent days?
...some mishmash of the above?

In the work Dreher organizes his thoughts to some degree and makes his case for why at this particular point in time Christians need to look to themselves and their household so as to carry on not just the pretense of the faith but also its substance. He discusses how he has come to view the situation, gives a historical overview suggesting how we have reached this point over the past 800 years, introduces Benedict and his Rule, talks about the current monastery in Nursia and what it represents, and then goes through a series of practices which he thinks will help Christians survive the storm: a different political posture, a more robust community, a better conception of church, emphasis on education, economics and hard labor, a counterculture regarding sexuality, and a call for humanity in an age of machines.

Dreher has spoken much about the book and its reception on his blog. On the whole I find his "solutions" to be right, good, and appropriate: perhaps a little less high on liturgy, maybe not nearly as obsessed with sexuality, but yes - if the faith is going to be carried on, it will have to be done deliberately, intentionally, and in resistance to the powers that be...

...but hasn't that always been true?

I find the work perplexing for a few reasons.

(1) What is Dreher really looking for? At the end he wants to make it out as if he's just calling Christians to uphold the faith and keep it going, which sounds well and good but it's certainly not the whole conclusion of the work as a whole. It looks at many points like he wants to preserve a particular type of Christian-dominated civic culture, which has assumed its pretense, as if it really has ever existed. The very invocation of Benedict presumes that a "Dark Age" is coming -- but a "dark age" for whom, and why?

If one's baseline is the Way Things Were in America in 1950, then yes, it's definitely a Dark Age we're coming into - literally and figuratively. If one's primary concerns involve what society says about human sexuality, the same conceit can be granted.

But at many points Dreher would seem to recognize that not all was well in the 1950s, and there are some hints of the recognition that some of the things that have changed since then are for the better, even if they're now making him a bit uncomfortable as cultural dynamics turn against him. In fact, in consideration of the second chapter, one can be forgiven for thinking that Dreher would believe that it has only gone downhill since 1250...and yet Dreher, a big fan of religious liberty and a lot of (philosophically) liberal principles, surely would not agree with that.

There's a lot of incoherence about what is being preserved. I don't think Dreher's being malevolent or hiding anything; there might well be a lot of incoherence. But it is important to know exactly what is trying to be accomplished with this kind of thing. What is being preserved - and, most importantly, should everything which is under consideration actually be preserved? Ecclesiastes 7:10 comes to mind: the good ol'days weren't that good. They were just different.

All of this leads to the major difficulty of (2), a lack of lament and introspection. Dreher spends a lot of time lamenting how things have changed, certainly, but it tends to be from other forces. There's not much of an inward look, asking how this once "Christian nation" has become so "unChristian." I don't think Dreher really believes it's all the fault of political liberals; there are a few passing comments here and there admitting failures of the church and the like. But there's no real grappling with how many people have been alienated from Christianity, or at least its institutional expressions, because of what they saw and heard and how they and others were treated. There's certainly no grappling with Christendom and its attendant compromises, which leads to...

...difficulty (3), which is how thoroughly ensconced Dreher is in "Christendom" and imperial Christianity. He started out as a Methodist, the "Establishment" church of the American frontier if there ever was one, converted to Catholicism, the "Establishment" church of the Latin West, and is now Orthodox, the "Establishment" church of the Greek East. For anyone not associated with "Establishment" churches and their inherent compromises with political power, the Benedict option seems, mostly, just like...well...what Christianity started out as and, as far as we can tell in the New Testament, what it was expected to continue to be until the Lord returns. Only in a world conditioned by establishment churches would it ever be assumed that a person could be inculcated with societal values and generally, or automatically, turn out to be some kind of Christian; and even that could be rightly challenged as preposterous according to NT concerns. A reading of the New Testament makes it clear that its authors would assume that in the absence of strong resistance to the forces of the world a person will become like the world and thus not loyal to Christ.

Dreher has made much of Christian Smith and his understanding of people accepting moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD). I have no quibble with that perspective save that it is not the only perspective, and does not entirely explain the past. It's not like we had untold millions of rigidly doctrinally accurate, Chalcedonian compliant, saintly Christians in America until we all got deluded by the Sexual Revolution. Dreher would have been well served to consider the work of Kruse and others on the nexus of big business and Evangelicals promoting Christianity as the civic religion in the middle of the 20th century, and of Jones on the end of White Christian America to see how many other forces are at play. Recent studies have wondered how much of the decline since the 90s has happened precisely because of the political marriage of Evangelicalism and the Republican party that Dreher implicitly has accepted as a positive development of the 80s through the present: it would have alienated Christians with politically liberal temperaments, and then Dreher wonders why Democrats won't listen to people of faith - because there are too few of us to listen to. But again, this would require the introspection and lament missing in (2).

What if the problem went back far further than 1250 to 325 and the Constantinian compromise? What if it is at that point when the faith became compromised in its willingness to allow the coercive power of the state to advance its purposes? Perhaps, in truth, Christianity is just supposed to be a modified "Benedict option," of people who see themselves as exiles looking for a better homeland, living in subjection to earthly authorities but with a higher loyalty, inculcating the values and community of Jesus into their people in their own generation and those that follow them? If you never depended the state, or the culture, to legitimate you or your views, then most of the fear and apprehension driving this book evaporates.

(4) So why now? A paragraph from p. 79 says it all:

"As recently as the 1960s, with the notable exception of civil rights, moral and cultural concerns weren't make-or-break issues in U.S. politics. Americans voted largely on economics, as they had since the Great Depression. There was sufficient moral consensus in the culturally Christian nation to keep sex and sexuality apolitical. The sexual revolution changed all that."

It requires a certain perspective, one that has over-elevated sexuality as The Great Concern, to lead to a paragraph like that. In reading it you immediately know its author is white.

Could we use some historical imagination? Imagine a cultural commentator in America in 1850. They have seen the collapse of political compromises. They can see slavery remaining and the treatment of indigenous peoples. Would such a commentator not have been in the right to call for a sort of "Benedict option," to get away from a state espousing such white supremacy, oppression of other people, and active in genocide?

And yet the culture at that time was nominally Christian. It just didn't exhibit the character thereof. But, after all, they held to the pretense of Christian moral values about sexuality (even if in practice, well, they didn't).

It's also telling that we get a whole chapter devoted to Benedictines in Nursia, but nothing about the black Christian experience in America. Yes, Dreher says he spoke with many, and would have added it if space permitted - but still. What *is* in it demonstrates priorities. We hear from Benedictines in Nursia who have voluntarily left many aspects of the world, and we do not hear from the people who well know and understand what it looks like when the state doesn't like you and is always stacked against you.

All of it is a telling admission, as if now, now that the pretense of maintaining a Biblical sexual ethic has been dismantled, that now is the time for Christians to reconsider how they exist in this society.

Is society overreacting? Of course it is. That's what societies do. So is the best solution to overreact to the overreaction, and act as if the world is ending, and we're at the precipice of a new Dark Age?

Yes, Christians need to accept that society won't help them or their children remain faithful Christians, and that allowing the world to disciple your children will lead them away from the faith. But that was true in 1975, and 1950, and 1850, and, yes, even in 1250. Christians need deep community with fellow people of God and to instruct according to what God has made known, and even better, embody what that looks like. No argument.

But too much of this work seems to be an apologia for a particular brand of cultural conservatism that may actually need to die the death because it won't come to grips with where it has so spectacularly failed and all it can do is react and respond immaturely and out of proportion to all reason and wisdom. It is a time of reckoning and purging, and that is going to be ugly and distressing for those who maintain commitments to such causes.

Judgment begins at the house of God, as Peter says in 1 Peter 4. The pretense of American civic Christianity is definitely being purged. How much you think it should be missed will direct how much you like this book. ( )
  deusvitae | Sep 29, 2019 |
The Benedict Option: a strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Rod Dreher. 2017. Ross Douthat accurately described the condition of religion in the US in Bad Religion, and now Dreher has elaborated on that description and provided concrete suggestions on what Christians-all Christians-can do to protect themselves and our future as a nation in this crazy time. This book is depressing and scary but ultimately hopeful. He does not, as his critics have said, suggest withdrawing from the world, but he does suggest that we become “intentional” Christians. We must stand up for what we believe firmly even if that means losing our jobs and our secular friends. He does suggest we take over the education of our children, severely curtail our use of all electronic equipment, become involved with our community, but also surround ourselves with like –thinking people. A readable and very important book ( )
  judithrs | May 14, 2019 |
From the inside, American churches have been hollowed out by the departure of young people and by an insipid pseudo–Christianity. From the outside, they are beset by challenges to religious liberty in a rapidly secularizing culture. Rod Dreher argues that the way forward is actu­ally the way back—all the way to St. Benedict of Nur­sia. Today, a new form of barbarism reigns. Many believers are blind to it, and their churches are too weak to resist. Politics offers little help in this spiritual crisis. What is needed is the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church. The goal: to embrace exile from mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture.
  StFrancisofAssisi | Aug 29, 2018 |
There was a quite a buzz about Rod Dreher's Benedict Option a year or so ago and so our little group that gathers at the Pastors Academy in North London from time to time (TSG) met to discuss it. As you might expect there was some antipathy to a book by a former Catholic Orthodox fellow who is basically advoccating that we learn from a Mediaeval monk. We tried to see past that and found many things in the book of interest. What struck me about the book was that it really contains nothing new. People have been speaking about it being a post-Christian situation at least since Schaeffer and the suggested answers - more community living, Christian education (not even the classical education idea is new), greater commitment, etc are also not new. If you have not read it you are not missing much but if this paragraph gets you curious it is worth getting a cheap copy or a paperback or borrowing one. ( )
  GaryBrady | Jul 25, 2018 |
It is not easy to be a member of any religious faith. Author Rod Dreher takes a close look at what he sees as the biggest threats to Christianity and presents the Benedict Option as a viable solution. His is a strategy that encourages a commune lifestyle that focused on scriptures, families, communities, and prayers similar to that found in turn of the century orthodox Benedictine orders. He makes some very good points about how people can work together and that church should focus priority on faith rather than politics. He also recognizes that ever-evolving technology has eroded personal communications between individuals.

One of the best things about the book is the author clearly expresses his beliefs on many issues. One of the worst things is the lack of Christian faith, not the author’s faith, but the faith that is the core of any religion. Dreher comments, “Christians should never deny their faith, but that doesn’t mean they are obligated to be in-your-face about it either”. He continues with a discussion of religious liberty that ends with him advising people to walk away rather than sacrifice or compromise belief. Many of the proposed solutions appear to contradict functional premises based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Goodreads Giveaway randomly chose me to receive this book free from the publisher. I was under no obligation to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. ( )
  bemislibrary | May 7, 2017 |
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