Book Review by Michael P. Walther
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Collinsville, Illinois
July 30, 2019
The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
Rod Dreher’s goal in the Benedict Option is to encourage the Christian church to look to Scripture and to the Rule of St. Benedict to form a vibrant Christian counter culture in order to survive and thrive amidst the moral decline of the world. He gives a historical survey of the spiritual decline of civilization. He outlines the philosophical and theological foundation of the Christian counter-culture. Finally, he presents practical life choices of a Christian counter-culture.
The Historical Survey
According to Dreher the decline began when William of Occam challenged the metaphysical realism of the Middle Ages with nominalism. Without going into all the details, I think it is fair to say that the metaphysical realists of the middle ages had a high regard for philosophy and placed it on the same level as Scripture, if not above it in some cases. Occam put limits on philosophy, and especially placed it below Scripture as a way of knowing. Dreher interprets this as a separation of the Creator and the creation. He blames Luther for continuing this trend and for destroying the unity of Europe. He continues to blame scientists like Copernicus and Newton who overthrew the Aristotelian view of a universe, a universe supported by God, and replacing it with the view of a mechanical universe. This continued into the Enlightenment and finally reached its climax with Darwinian evolution.
I agree that Darwinian evolution was a major turning point leading toward a godless view of the universe. But the Occam, Luther, Copernicus trend led just as easily to William Paley, C. S. Lewis, and John Warwick Montgomery – men who firmly believe the Apostles’ Creed. Why does Dreher try to link Darwin to Occam? He does so because he holds the middle ages in very high regard – a kind of model society which was destroyed by Luther. This is a sub-theme of the book. I know that the middle ages were not all bad. I’m thankful for the monasteries that preserved the Biblical manuscripts and gave birth to the great universities. But I’m not thankful for the confusion of the two kingdoms and the repression of science, Scripture, and the Gospel of forgiveness. The middle ages may have some things to teach us, but there is still much that we should thankfully leave in the past.
The Philosophical and Theological Foundation of a Christian Counter-Culture
Rod Dreher and I may disagree on how we got to where we are today, but we do agree for the most part on where we are. Scripture was abandoned long ago. Now our post-Christian society is abandoning logic and truth itself. It is a culture led by “emotivism” in which the guiding principle is that of feelings, and its goal is the liberation of the individual will to do whatever it wants. A Christian counter-culture needs to be built on the foundation of the truth and love. While post-modern civilizations disintegrate and destroy themselves in their rejection of truth, the Christian counter-culture will thrive in the truth that God gives us both in nature and in Scripture. Living the truth needs to follow knowing the truth, and this leads to the importance of love. A Christian-counter culture will thrive in the love of God for us, our love for God, and our love for one another. The Christian church, in all her different communities, will survive when it provides a sub-culture of truth and love.
Practical Life Choices
This foundation will support a number of important practical life choices which involve: Sanctification, Suffering, Education, and Work.
Sanctification, or holiness, is a very important faith-motivated choice that benefits Christians and attracts non-Christians. Without truth and love the world eventually becomes a very ugly place. We need God’s grace to control our appetites, anger, pride, envy, etc. Dreher advocates a kind of seceding from the culture especially regarding social media and entertainment. We should spend more time studying God’s word, praying, reading great books, making music, planting gardens, painting pictures, etc.
We must prepare for Suffering which will come upon Christians in varying degrees. He could have spent more time focusing on this.
Education will be a very important key. Dreher strongly urges Christians to get their children out of public schools. They should also avoid Christians schools that are not primarily focused on the faith (Christian in name only). Dreher advocates classical education and provides a little history of its resurgence in America. (See the story of St. Jerome Academy, Hyattsville, MA) Classical education focuses on grammar (basic facts), logic (reason, analyzing), and rhetoric (abstract thinking, debate, clear self-expression). He also advocates economical education without all the frills that we find in public education. An example is St. Constantine College, Houston, which has no expensive sports programs and no full-time administrators.
Work will be an important matter for Christians in the future. LGBT compliance will force Christians to make compromises contrary to their faith. Christians who disagree with LGBT lifestyles will be viewed as bigots and racists. In order to support their families, Christians will need to consider jobs which may pay less. Dreher encourages Christians to consider skilled labor which might provide work that is not necessarily tied to LGBT loving corporations.
Where does Benedict come in? Dreher gives a little history of the sixth century monk of , and the book is peppered with insights drawn from the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule is 73 short paragraphs that provide a good order for life for a community of monks so that they might find the presence of God in ordinary life. Some aspects of this order can carry over to family life in the sub-culture of the Christian church. The order encourages intense daily prayer, obedience to superiors, putting others first, working diligently but not pridefully, controlling appetites, welcoming strangers, etc. These are great virtues that Christians should strive for as they live in their vibrant counter culture!
However, my main problem with the Benedict Option goes back to my disagreement with Dreher about Occam and Luther. Yes, I am a Lutheran, and it might seem as though I’m just defending my own tradition. But I know there is a deeper unresolved issue here. Anyone who reads the Rule of St. Benedict cannot help but notice the great emphasis on COMPLETE OBEDIENCE TO THE ABBOT. This is emphasized over and over. Obedience to spiritual superiors is important, and it goes back to the fourth commandment, Honor your father and mother. But one of the tragedies of the medieval church is the abuse of this commandment in the formation of the papacy. Dreher talks a lot of good order in life. But where does that order come from? and his logic or from God through His word. The papacy created an order in which man (claiming a special spiritual anointing and tradition) and man’s logic stood above God’s word. Luther reversed this order. Reading the Benedict Option, you can detect this medieval move to put Scripture below some other authority. Dreher mentions the importance of teaching Scripture to children but not so much for adults. By my count there are only seven references to Scripture in the book. He does emphasize the use of Scripture in prayer, and that is wonderful. But Scripture has a greater role and must have a greater role in our Christian sub-culture. It must be our ultimate guide to life in a “post-modern pagan” world. As Peter said, “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (2.2). And, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3.18).
I am very glad that Dreher wrote this book. I’ve always felt that persecution would push Christians back together, and I pray that this indeed occurs as we move forward into these end-times. Read this book. Draw good advice from it. But above all read the Scriptures for faith and for the good order of life built upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin and for our salvation.
Handout for Adult Bible Study
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Collinsville, Illinois July 28, 2019
The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher
Goal: To encourage the Christian church to look to Scripture and to the Rule of St. Benedict to form a vibrant Christian counter culture in order to survive and thrive amidst the moral decline of the world.
How We Got Here: Blame William of Occam and Martin Luther. The worst thing about Luther was that he taught Sola Scriptura (how many Bible references in the book?) – The Middle Ages were the best! (?)
The Philosophical and Theological Foundation of a Christian Counter-Culture: Modern culture has abandoned the truth of Scripture and logic. It is led by “emotivism.” This will lead to destruction. The Christian counter-culture will thrive in the truth that God gives us both in nature and in Scripture. Living the truth needs to follow knowing the truth, and this leads to the importance of love. A Christian-counter culture will thrive in the love of God for us, our love for God, and our love for one another.
St. Benedict: Sixth century monk who founded the Benedictines in Italy. They are known as “The Preachers.” Thomas Aquinas was a Benedictine, so was Johann Tetzel. The “Rule of St. Benedict” is 73 short paragraphs that lay down the rules for monastic life. They emphasize humility, a very ordered life of prayer and work, COMPLETE OBEDIENCE to the abbot, very simple lifestyle, etc.
Practical Life Choices:
Participate in politics, especially to maintain freedom of religion, but don’t attempt to fix the world with politics.
Rediscover liturgical worship, habits of asceticism, evangelize with goodness and beauty, embrace exile and possible martyrdom
Turn your home into a domestic monastery. Be a nonconformist. Don’t take your kids’ friends for granted. Don’t idolize the family. Live close to your community/church. Don’t idolize the community. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough.
Give family a rightly ordered education/teach children the Scriptures. Study western civilization. Get your kids out of public schools. Send them to classical Christian schools or homeschool. Study the classics (university).
Embrace hard labor. Buy from Christians even if it costs more. Rediscover the trades. Be poorer and marginalized.
Sanctify sex. Fight pornography with everything you’ve got. Practice digital fasting. Take smart phones from kids. Do things with your hands. Question progress.