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The Benedict Option

In the Nick of Time

Kevin T. Bauder

Central Seminary does not usually use In the Nick of Time for book reviews. The Nick is an opinion piece. It is aimed at pastors and students, and designed to address sundry issues from the general perspective of the seminary—which can be partly summarized as Baptist, fundamentalist, dispensationalist, cessationist, and complementarian. Every now and then, however, a book catches the attention of our readers, who ask for our opinion about it. On those occasions, we may offer a review by way of evaluating the book’s thesis.

That’s why I am reviewing The Benedict Option. Author Rod Dreher is a journalist who holds forth mainly at The American Conservative. He is a former Catholic who presently identifies as Eastern Orthodox. His book was published earlier this year and has captured the attention of many evangelicals and fundamentalists (he actually references—kindly—some of the latter).

Dreher’s argument can be summed up briefly. As he sees it, the culture war is over and Christians have lost. They are not going to regain control of their civilization anytime soon, so they must resign themselves to being marginalized or worse. Rather than trying to capture the culture, they must prepare themselves to preserve both their Christianity and the best of civilization within their own “villages.” Consequently, they should build a strong counterculture, centered in what he calls “stable communities of faith.” Establishing and perpetuating these communities will require a form of disciplined self-denial that Dreher is not afraid to label asceticism. It will also require a commitment from Christians to educate their own children.

Early in the book, Dreher offers a pretty good discussion of how the West has become viciously secularized. He rightly points to the triumph of nominalism over realism in the 14th century as the crucial turning point. He does a fair job sketching the decline of the West through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific, Industrial, and Sexual Revolutions. The discussion is flawed, however, when Dreher (partly) blames Protestantism and American Constitutionalism for the relegation of religion to the private sphere.

Much about Dreher’s proposed agenda is attractive, though he gives up too easily on the notion that believers can and should continue to affect legislation and jurisprudence. Even given this caveat, however, who could object to erecting strong communities of faith that discipline themselves to swim against the currents of the prevailing, secular culture? In an American church that has reduced Christianity to the self-indulgent pursuit of amusement and acceptance, Dreher’s call for rootedness, integrity, and stability is like a fresh breeze over a fetid lagoon. The West really does look like it is descending into a Dark Age, and Christians should find ways to brace for its arrival. Much of Dreher’s proposal ought to be pursued; much of it even looks like what fundamentalists have tried to do.

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Caring for the Caregiver

Still, The Benedict Option displays certain flaws. I will focus on the three that I think are most important and most likely to cause problems with Dreher’s proposal.

The first is that Dreher never seriously addresses the nature of Christianity. This failure is important because The Benedict Option is not a proposal for generic conservatives. Dreher writes for Christians who (as he sees it) are facing marginalization and are likely to face persecution. In the face of this hostile secularism, he explicitly argues for an “ecumenism of the trenches” in which Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox support one another.

Of course, there are ways in which Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox can and should help each other within the political and cultural spheres. What they cannot rightly do, however, is to support each other as Christians. Given a biblical understanding of gospel Christianity, Bible believers should never apply the label Christian to either Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Granted, each of those systems contains considerable Christian truth—just as rat poison contains quite a bit of corn meal. But just ask them, “What must I do to be saved?” Answering this question, Catholicism and Orthodoxy reveal themselves as gospel-denying and soul-damning apostasies. There is no Christian fellowship with people who affirm such teachings. The best parts of Dreher’s Benedict option ought to be pursued, but they must be pursued in fellowship only among those who, at minimum, affirm the genuine gospel.

Second, Dreher doesn’t seem to realize how flabby American evangelicalism has become. Since the Second Great Awakening, American evangelicals have built their institutions by turning their Christianity into a sanitized reflection of popular culture. “Relevance” and “redeeming the culture” have become both addictions and excuses. For many or most, Christianity has been reduced to a form of entertainment. In matters of both personal and social morality it has conceded issue after issue. In general, American evangelicals (not excepting fundamentalists) are unwilling either to restrict their liberties or to be denied their luxuries.

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Dreher wants to call this crowd to asceticism and discipline. He wants them to be ready to embrace sacrifice, discipline, cultural marginalization, and even to accept lower paychecks. He is asking a movement that has devoted itself to trivial things to build institutions for preserving the permanent things. What Dreher wants is good, just like wanting to go 70 miles an hour on the Interstate is good. But Dreher wants to do it in a ’68 Biscayne with shot tie rods and a blown head gasket.

The third problem is the really fatal one. Dreher recognizes that American Christians are going to be pushed to the periphery; he is ready for that. He also recognizes that there will be no way to avoid confrontations with the vicious secularism of the age—especially when it comes to sexual questions. Yet he somehow thinks that Christians can secure the kind of religious liberty that will permit them to hold and practice their convictions within their own businesses and communities. That’s just wishful thinking. If the descent into vicious secularism continues, there will be no place to hide. The push has already begun: you can’t sell flowers, bake cakes, or put ink on paper unless you’re willing to toe the line on public policy. Whatever temporary reprieves may be granted, they will be just that—temporary.

At some point, the Benedict option will no longer be an option. We have to begin asking ourselves how we intend to survive in a society in which the exercise or even the expression of our faith is no longer tolerated. The answer is not to attenuate the biblical message. Instead, we have to ask which laws we may disregard, which laws we must set ourselves against, and how we intend to survive when the law has placed the normal means of life outside our hands.

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Parts of Dreher’s work are insightful, and parts of his proposal are commonsensically necessary. While readers should approach the book critically, as a whole it remains both interesting and useful. I’ve chosen to object to aspects of Dreher’s work, but I greatly enjoyed reading The Benedict Option and encourage both pastors and students to do the same.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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from The Dear Bargain

Richard Crashaw (1613?–1640)

LORD! what is man? why should he cost you          
So dear? what had his ruin lost you? 
Lord! what is man, that Thou hast overbought         
        So much a thing of nought?

If I was lost in misery,           
What was it to Thy heav’n and Thee?           
What was it to the precious blood,    
If my foul heart call’d for a flood?    
What if my faithless soul and I          
        Would needs fall in
        With guilt and sin?    
What did the Lamb that He should die?      
What did the Lamb that He should need,    
When the wolf sins, Himself to bleed?       
        If my base lust
Bargain’d with death and well-beseeming dust,       
        Why should the white
        Lamb’s bosom write  
        The purple name        
        Of my sin’s shame?
Why should His unstain’d breast make good
My blushes with His own heart-blood?        

O my Saviour, make me see, 
How dearly Thou hast paid for me,   
That lost again my life may prove,
As then in death, so now in love.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

2 Responses to The Benedict Option

  1. I am always just amazed when I read a bemoaning of the so-called decline of the West that started in the late Middle Ages. Decline from what? In the same article, Bauder says that Catholicism is a false religion. By those words, he condemns pretty much the entirety of Christianity for the previous 1000 years up until the point at which the “decline” started. How do you decline from a false religion and especially one in which corruption was rampant?

    That is before you even begin to discuss the other enormous problems with that culture from the treatment of the lower class and abuse of monarchy, the lack of rights for minorities and the disadvantaged, etc.

    If what we have seen since the Middle Ages is decline, I am all for it.

  2. Frank,

    I just retrieved your comment from my “junk” folder, where it had been autosorted. Hence the delay in responding.

    How much do you actually know about Catholicism? Are you aware that the Roman Catholicism of today is mostly a product of the Counter-Reformation? The Catholicism of the Middle Ages was broader–rather like the Republican Party of today. It included genuine gospel-believers and preachers, even if they were often outnumbered.

    How seriously have you studied the Middle Ages in general? It’s really quite anachronistic to speak of “the lower class.” Westerners understood themselves to belong to one of three estates: those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed. You might do a bit of reading from responsible sources. While it’s rather dated, you might start with C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image. The human condition hasn’t been utopian since the Fall; it won’t be again until the Second Advent. The question is not whether you can find sins in a given period; the question is whether that period held the correct categories through which to view its sins.

    I’d be happy to know that we moderns (and postmoderns) have finally eliminated official corruption, state oppression, religious persecution, and denial of God-given rights from our world. We have, haven’t we? Haven’t we?

    Might it be that you’re employing the wrong yardstick to measure advance and decline?

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