I don’t recall when or where I first heard of the Benedict Option, but immediately I was intrigued, hopeful.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Benedict Option (or BenOp, as it’s sometimes called), it’s the brainchild of Rod Dreher, a politically conservative American writer whose recent books include one on the life-changing power of Dante. Essentially, the BenOp, hearing the “withdrawing roar” of ebbing faith, calls for faithful believers to retreat from the culture wars and instead strengthen their own communities, affirming and renewing the narratives which compose orthodox Christian belief. Dreher, and those who follow the BenOp, insist that it’s not a call for total cultural disengagement; believers are still encouraged to vote in accordance with their convictions, to run for office as God leads, to live in the suburbs and shop at the local grocery store and visit the local movie theaters. But the emphasis changes. Rather than being focused outward, on molding the community – usually, via legal means – to faith, believers are now focused inward, committing themselves to the essentials of faith not only in doctrine but also in practice, binding themselves to the community in order to become whole and holy persons.
There’s a lot that appeals to me about this idea.
As a single woman, I live largely without a genuine community. My work and church offer activities for me to be involved in, but attending a Christian concert or watching a videotaped women’s Bible study is not actually authentic community. I have caring, encouraging parents and family members, but they live nine hours and more away by car. The idea of fellow believers coming together to work, to eat, perhaps to linger over a deep conversation and a glass of wine and through this community to encourage and renew each other in the faith is one that seems encouraging to me. I imagine it strikes other people in the same way.
I also find the idea of withdrawing, at least partially, from the culture wars attractive. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that we Christians should be involved in our culture. But changing the culture, which usually involves changing the law, or at least preserving it, is often a substitute for the much more difficult process of changing our hearts to be like Christ. We forget that holiness cannot be brought about through legal means, and in any case, we are less to be concerned about their holiness, and more about our own. I have spent time on the fringes of fundamentalist Christianity, where believers continually emphasize the godlessness of our culture and call for reform; it is a scary and upsetting place to be. The Lord calls us to peace and Christlikeness, and in this context, the BenOp’s emphasis on knowing and living out what we believe, rather than on tweaking the culture, seems appropriate.
So it has saddened me recently to observe the tone of Dreher’s posts, at least on The American Conservative. Post after post adopts a fearful, almost apocalyptic tone towards the events of modern culture. One recent post suggests that feminism is anti-woman in that it makes having children something to be feared; and then argues that in convincing women not to be mothers, feminism has torn down the stabilizing Western family structure. Another post bemoans Obama’s directive about school bathrooms being open to transgender students, taking the missive as a sign that public schools really are in the toilet, beyond redemption.
My problem here is not primarily with the content of Dreher’s posts, though I think that both issues (specifically feminism and the family, a topic I always find compelling) are far more complex than either of his posts make them out to be. (Maybe watch for a follow-up post on feminism in the near future.)
My problem is with the tone: fear.
In fact, the posts seem to stoke fear. The post on feminism warns of looming “catastrophe” and threatens that children will “never be able to form stable families” (emphasis mine); the one on transgender school bathrooms compares the schools to a “python slowly squeezing the life out of” students. Notice the panicky quality of these words, the sense of the dramatic and apocalyptic. Not every word is Dreher’s (the post on schools was a letter from one of his readers), but their place on the blog guarantees that those who read about the BenOp, and consider following it, are increasingly being urged to fear what is happening in the culture.
And yet fear is not who we are as Christians.
Whatever happened to Paul’s encouragement to Timothy: “God has not given you a spirit of fear, but of power, and love, and a sound mind?”
Whatever happened to Jesus’s words to his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.”
Ultimately, I’m concerned about the panicky tone of these posts for two reasons:
One, being fearful is not what the BenOp is about, and two, it’s not what the Christian life is about. If I understand the Ben Op correctly, it is about telling the story of who we are as Christians, the story of orthodox doctrine; not the story of how we conquered the godless laws of the Western world. But when we panic about those godless laws, we interrupt the story about who we are as believers. Put another way, the Ben Op is about building a local culture of faith, not making the culture of the world ours; and when we are fearful of the worldly culture, we get distracted from our own local culture of faith.
Surely when the Lord said through Paul that we were not to be conformed to this world, included in that instruction was a warning against being obsessed and fearful of this world and its ways. Surely when the Lord said to us that we were to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, He meant that we were to be made like Him in our thoughts as well as our actions, unafraid of this present darkness and hopeful for His dawning in us.
The Ben Op, as I understand it, is meant to provide the kind of structured community that enables us to not be conformed to this world, to be transformed in the image of Christ. But all these fearmongering posts will be its undoing.
C.S. Lewis, in writing on the dangers of the atomic war, urged his fellow Englishmen to courage: “The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”
Those of us who are interested in the Ben Op must likewise pull ourselves together. Maybe we will be destroyed by the fall of Western culture, but huddling together and thinking about that fall will do us no good whatever. So let us be sensible, human, and Christlike, which is what (I thought) the Ben Op was about: praying, working, teaching, and reading together, putting aside our fears of the fraying Western culture so that together we may become more like Christ.