Reader, beware: I have not yet read Rod Dreher’s book-length treatise, released this week: The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.
I state this up front because Dreher recently expressed umbrage at the twitter-critique of evangelical-turned-Episcopalian writer Rachel Held Evans, who took issue with Dreher’s “persecution narrative” while also admitting she had not yet read the book.
As the author of four books who has also sometimes been hammered in comment sections by people who begin their statement with “I haven’t read the book (or essay), but…,” I understand Dreher’s exasperation with criticism coming from (non)readers. But Held Evans spent years in conservative evangelical circles, and she knows the culture of conservative Christianity Dreher is writing for and about intimately well.
Now that Dreher’s book is finally here, the question Held Evans and many other Christian writers are asking is the same: who is this book for? Is it written only for Dreher’s fellow travellers on the conservative spectrum, or is there an openness to more progressive Christian readers as well?
And, in a larger sense, is there finally room for a dialogue between people on different ends of the Christian spectrum?
My qualifications to write about Dreher and the Benedict Option are the same ones I had when I wrote about it here at RD in 2015: I’m a practicing Catholic, a friend to several Benedictines, and a casual student of Benedictine teaching. I’ve read Dreher’s recent Christianity Today cover story, “The Benedict Option’s Vision for a Christian Village,” and have studied his evolving theory behind it through his columns over several years. However, unlike Dreher but like a large percentage of my fellow Catholics, I’m also a supporter of marriage equality. Additionally, I have a small reputation as a Catholic feminist, and I don’t think Dreher would include himself in that category.
Thus, even with my interest in Benedictine spirituality, from book excerpts I’ve read and from his columns and social media posts, it’s clear that I am likely not a member of Dreher’s target audience. Dreher is not particularly interested in liberal Christian voices; he rarely mentions them without some sort of disdain, so I don’t suspect he cares much about liberal Christian readers either.
But many liberal Christians are just as interested in re-examining ideas about the roots of Christian tradition as conservative Christians are. Could the Benedict Option be an opportunity for us to do this together?
The answer is likely no.
Much of my earlier argument against the Benedict Option’s focus on Christian self-isolation took place against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Today, like many other members of the Catholic and Christian left, I find myself doing some soul searching and wound-licking about the real future of progressive Christianity—because from where I sit writing this, it appears that progressive Christianity is at a crisis point right now.
Before last November, I believed my fellow white Catholics would look beyond Trump’s promises of appointing pro-life supreme court judges and vote for a candidate with a better chance of living up to Catholic social teaching on poverty and social justice. They did not.
I believed progressive Protestant voices like Rachel Held Evans or Nadia Bolz-Weber would have an increasing influence on evangelicals, who frequently buy their books. They did not.
I was incorrect in my assumption that even if progressive Christian denominations were shrinking, increasing numbers of American Christians who no longer attend church would still move toward a more progressive theology, a more Gospel-based sense of welcoming the stranger, and vote accordingly. For the most part, they did not.
Thus, as a prominent voice for conservative Christianity, Rod Dreher has every reason to be strutting his stuff. Conservative Christianity rode four horses home on November 9th, and progressive Christianity has been in a head-spinning cycle of self-examination ever since. And yet, last month’s Christianity Today cover story is not a triumphalist screed, but instead a call to further retrenchment for American Christians.
As Emma Green recently wrote in the Atlantic, rather than reassuring him, the resurgence of conservative Christianity has left Dreher “terrified.” According to Green, Dreher tells readers of the book they should “not be fooled” in the wake of the election, because it has merely bought Christians “a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable”—a time in which Christians are actively oppressed. In his response to Held Evans’ critique, Dreher envisions a future when “the police come looking for dissident orthodox Christians hiding out from state persecution, [and] the Rachel Held Evanses of the world will point helpfully and patriotically, and say, ‘They’re in the basement, officer.’”
What’s interesting about this insistence on a future of Christian persecution is that it’s happening at the same moment that the travel ban is affecting individuals who are actually and actively being persecuted. Those people are mostly Muslims. And Dreher’s idea of Christians being smuggled into basements for safekeeping is occurring at the same moment that Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated and Jewish schools and community centers are receiving bomb threats. The irony would not be lost on Anne Frank.
In his Christianity Today article, Dreher argues that the conflicts between left and right in America ultimately resemble a war in which “the cultural left—which is to say, the American mainstream—has no intention of living in postwar peace.” He also states that the Benedict Option “does not mean withdrawal from the world by any means,” but is instead a call to community life, rural or urban. He argues that “American Christians have a bad habit of treating church like a consumer experience,” and that church shopping is merely an attempt at finding a congregation to meet one’s “felt needs.”
However, Dreher insists that Christian communities should not be “wrapped too tight for fear of impurity,” because “ideology is the enemy of joyful community life, and the most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is possible.”
Dreher then lists several examples of Christian communities, with an emphasis on communities living near churches as a solution to the pressure of secular culture. Praying together, living as neighbors, and sharing resources does sound like a utopia for many lonely and isolated Americans, and hospitality—welcoming the stranger—is at the heart of the Benedictine charism. But most of the examples Dreher lists in the article have one thing in common: they are primarily led by men, and some are male-only communities. Dreher may insist that the Benedict Option is not about “fear of impurity,” but anyone with a passing knowledge of Christian history knows that centuries of male-only leadership in Christian institutions have created a particularly stubborn set of problems for women.
While Saint Benedict might have lived in a male-only and male-led community, there have been female Benedictine communities for centuries, and today’s best known Benedictine writer is probably the theologian Joan Chittister, who was formerly the prioress of her community, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA. As a female religious leader, Chittister’s interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict offers some interesting contrast to Dreher’s. On the Benedictine charism of hospitality, Chittister writes that “Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.”
In fact, the Rule of Benedict itself says in Chapter 53, “On the Reception of Guests,” that monastic communities should “let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.” Dreher’s idealistic notion of Christian community life is indeed appealing, but it neglects to understand that the guests arriving right now most in need of welcome are mostly not Christians. Nor does Dreher seem to write about progressive Christian communities that are, in fact, living out their own version of the Benedict Option, although their ideas about community are perhaps more open to female leadership of LGBTQ members.
Evangelicals, who largely lean and vote conservative, might seem to be a natural audience for Dreher’s work, which may be why the editors of Christianity Today invited him to contribute a cover story. They also asked four evangelical writers to respond to Dreher’s story and the question of whether evangelicals should pursue “strategic withdrawal.” Three of these evangelicals are highly critical of the Benedict Option. David Fitch, a professor of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary, writes that evangelicals cannot “make a choice between living in Christian community or being present in our culture. We cannot, therefore, extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are.”
K.A. Ellis, an ambassador for International Christian Response, says that in contrast to Dreher’s argument that Christianity is threatened, “many historically marginalized communities wounded by false Christianity would even say that Christianity is discovering its place for the first time.” She adds that young urban faith leaders are “are creating something that is not counter-cultural, but other-cultural; not a-political, but other-political,” and that “anyone seeking a more dynamic, transformational, risk-taking church in America will humbly learn from both global and local leaders who are living its reality.”
And Hannah Anderson, who ministers to rural communities in Virginia, says that for evangelicals, Christian retreat “could actually exacerbate our individualism by disabling a key piece of our systematic: the call to actively and intentionally work for the good of our neighbor’s soul.”
Dreher’s book also recently faced criticism from the Calvinist philosopher James K.A. Smith, who reviewed it along with books by Archbishop Charles Chaput and Anthony Esolen in the Washington Post under the headline “The New Alarmism.” Dreher, Chaput and Esolen, according to Smith, are the authors of “books intended for choirs: they are written to confirm biases, not change minds. They are not written to be overheard.” As is his wont, Dreher fired back at Smith in his column, talking about Smith’s former enthusiasm for the Benedict Option and calling Smith’s response “sleazy” and accusing him of “chewing on sour grapes.”
This exchange at least resulted in a joke from writer Daniel José Camacho, who tweeted that “It looks like the James K.A. Smith and Rod Dreher bromance has come to an end.”
So what do you do when Calvinists and evangelicals take a hard pass on your theory about Christian retrenchment? Dreher is a fairly well known former Catholic turned Orthodox Christian, but there are (unfortunately) no prominent magazines of Orthodox Christianity in America that might review his book. As of right now, I couldn’t find reviews of The Benedict Option in America, Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, The National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, or US Catholic. And First Things hasn’t published anything with the Benedict Option tag since 2016.
Perhaps this is just a factor of timing: Dreher’s book was only released yesterday (on March 14th), and prestige secular publications like the Atlantic and the Washington Post are more likely to run early reviews than Catholic publications. But Dreher’s target audience clearly includes Catholics, so it will be interesting to watch how Catholic publications respond to his book.
In the meantime, however, The Benedict Option arrives at what can only be described as a perplexing moment in American Christianity. The president’s religious beliefs are difficult to parse, but his cabinet’s are clear, and even if Dreher argues that the Benedict Option is not about Christian withdrawal, Christian dominance of social policies is about to become the law of the land. And yet, pushback from people of many faiths has been immediate, and real. If Dreher wants to preach to a choir beyond other conservative Christians, this may prove to be a tricky moment to do so.
Faith-based activism that stands in opposition to much of what Dreher writes about is thriving, but it is also at a crisis moment: the momentum behind resistance to Christian right policies is mostly coming from the secular left, not the Christian left. Lacking a public position in the same kind of media platforms Dreher and other prominent conservative Christian writers like Ross Douthat have access to, the religious left is mostly preaching to its own choir. There’s no Christian left equivalent to Rod Dreher, and maybe there shouldn’t be—after all, he too is preaching to his own choir.
No progressive Christian is going to warrant the cover story of Christianity Today, and no conservative Christian is going do the same in the National Catholic Reporter. And, in many ways, that’s a shame. Choirs that only listen to themselves eventually dissolve into dissonance, not harmony. That goes both ways for Christians right now. Neither side knows what’s next. Nobody knows what’s next. We can only grope our way from one moment to another, but neither an idealized Christian past nor a narrative that envisions a persecuted Christian future are going to create real and lasting communities.
Only those who are really willing and able to welcome the stranger are going to be able to do that. If Dreher is among them, that remains to be seen.