Book Review: 'The Benedict Option,' by Rod Dreher

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher. Sentinel Press, 262 pages with index. $25.00

There is something inherently odd about the Benedict Option, the view that Christians should retreat from the world into small and tightly knit communities where they may live a Christian life with a minimum of disturbance from the evil side of modernity. Christianity by its nature has a universal mission. It speaks to the evil of our age that devout Christians want to encyst themselves against the secular world.

Rod Dreher, a prominent conservative writer, describes his Benedict Option as follows:

We live liturgically, telling our sacred Story in worship and song. We fast and we feast. We marry and give our children in marriage, and though in exile, we work for the peace of the city. We welcome our newborns and bury our dead. We read the Bible, and we tell our children about the saints. And we also tell them in the orchard and by the fireside about Odysseus, Achilles and Aeneas, of Dante and Don Quixote, and Frodo and Gandalf, and all the tales that bear what it means to be men and women of the West.

Dreher’s book has both the charm and merit of a participant’s account of the practicalities of withdrawing from the world. The first half of the book tries to account for the decline of Western civilization, an issue to which I will return later; the strongest chapters come later, recounting the experience of the religious who have tried to separate themselves from secular society, and exhorting the reader to embrace work, risk, and faith. Christians should be prudent, that is, not seek needless  career martyrdom in pursuit of principles where victory is impossible; they should save themselves for family and community. Where believers are driven out of certain professions by the new secular inquisition, Dreher says, they should instead be entrepreneurial. Christians should rediscover the trades, where the religious can make a living without signing on to secular ideology. They should buy from other Christians and help Christians find employment.

These examples and exhortations will be of great help to religious people who find it impossible to protect their children from the plagues of pornography and commercialism that erode the content of contemporary life. Dreher proposes sensible, well-considered measures to achieve family and community independence from mainstream society rather than radical demonstration.

Jews have no business telling Christians how to conduct their lives, but there is something in the Jewish experience that resonates with the idea of withdrawal from the mainstream of society. When I speak to Christian groups the question I hear most often is: “How do the Jews keep their children in the fold?” The answer, of course, is that most of us don’t. As the joke goes, the difference between Donald Trump and a liberal Jew is that Trump has Jewish grandchildren.