I haven’t done much writing about “The Benedict Option” by my friend Rod Dreher, but this image gave me some things to think about. It’s the cover of the French edition of “The Benedict Option,” which comes out in September, and it’s better than the original cover, isn’t it? It expresses the central concept better than the original cover did, though that is admittedly a beautiful photo. The original cover shows Mt St Michel, literally a monastery on a hill, so is it any wonder people think that’s what the book is about?
I will go out on a limb and say what I think Rod would say, about this persistent mis-impression that he is exhorting people to “head for the hills.” I think the confusion has to do with the idea of “withdrawing from the political arena” (or however it’s phrased).
If you are directly involved in politics, Rod is not advising you to stop. If you hold office, or are running for office, or supporting people in office, if you are professionally involved in politics in any way, Rod is not trying to stop you.
He’s noting instead that for the vast majority of Christians in America, politics is a spectator sport. We follow it and talk about it, but are not professionally involved. We assume that everything that’s important happens in the political arena, so we keep focused on it.
I think what Rod wants to say is that what’s wrong with our culture cannot be solved by politics. In terms of the social, cultural, and moral issues, popular opinion has been marching steadily to the left for fifty years. The vast majority of Americans actually likes those changes in morality. They like the freedom to do whatever they want. There is no conservative majority to energize, on the social issues, because the majority wants things just as they are, or more so.
So, even though we sometimes achieve political victories, even the presidency, we never make any progress on those issues. Those who are called to politics must keep at it, but the rest of us need to realize that they aren’t going to be able to stop a momentum that has the majority of public opinion behind it. We live in a democracy, and we’re going to have the kind of culture most people want.
But while we’ve been setting all our hopes on political victory, we’ve permitted the tide of secular culture to flow freely into our homes and families. Surveys show that today’s Christians are mostly ignorant of the core beliefs of their faith. In terms of moral standards, their behavior matches that of those in the world around them, rather than that held through Christian history. Christian marriages fail about as often as secular marriages do. In terms of the moral issues, Christians have become indistinguishable from the non-Christian population, probably because we actually agree with the majority, and prefer to do whatever we want.
Christianity is not matched up against atheism today, or even paganism, but against an easy, shallow, amiable public religion. It holds that God wants us to be nice to each other, and call on him in times of trouble; otherwise, he just wants us to be happy. (This is has been called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD.)
Real Christianity isn’t like that; it’s challenging, even difficult. Churches have found it a hard sell. They offer instead an affirming, sympathetic, entertaining version of Christian faith, pitched in the tones of clever advertisements. Worship is not focused on God but on the worshiper; the goal is giving the worshiper a good worship experience.
Regardless of the style it takes—contemporary, trendy-ancient, social-justice, etc—anxiety to please the consumer is itself detrimental to faith. Perpetuating the consumer’s expectation that he will be catered to is detrimental to faith. Because real Christianity means taking up your cross (Matthew 16:24).
So the Benedict Option is not about withdrawing from the public square. Those whom God has called to the public square had better stay there. Instead, it’s a call to recognize that politics cannot solve the problems that confront us. We have to let that fantasy go.
The Benedict Option is a call to recognize that, while we’ve been keeping our binoculars trained on politics, all this time the sweet, seductive, please-yourself culture has been seeping in under the door. It is saturating our minds and those of our children; it is training us to think of ourselves as primarily consumers, vigilantly monitoring our right to be pleased.
The Benedict Option is a call to resist this. It’s a call to “wake up and strengthen the things that remain” (Revelation 3:2). This is going to be unglamorous and demanding, a family-by-family, church-by-church recomittment to the difficult life in Christ, which entails taking up your cross. We are going to need each others’ support. It’s not going to be easy, but the hour is already late, so let’s get started.