If you’ve never heard of The Benedict Option, you’re probably not alone. You may have heard of Benedict of Nursia (modern day Norcia in Italy), but didn’t know he offered an option for living in a post-Christian nation. Well, Rod Dreher thinks he does, and after numerous articles, finally published a book on it.
In some sense, it is not a new concept. Much of the discussion dates back to a quote from Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue. As Christopher Cleveland does a superb job of explaining, theologians have been talking about this for 35 years. But, as with many academic theological discussions, the general public remained blissfully ignorant.
With Dreher’s book in print now, the discussion is much more publicized. He writes not as an academic, but as an informed lay person who is a good writer (good enough to make a living doing it). Having been somewhat watching the discussion from afar, I decided a trip to California was a great time to actually read the book (see above)
Rather than summarize it myself, I’d suggest you read Jake Meador’s review at Mere Orthodoxy. He provides the best summary that could function like a Cliff Notes if you need it to do so. For an extensive critical interaction, see James K. A. Smith’s review. I would tend to agree with his assessment that much of what Dreher offers sounds like fundamentalism minus the rapture. But, I wouldn’t necessarily consider Smith’s a review a “total takedown,” and would like to point out, he has his own axe to grind with contemporary Christian approaches to culture.
In terms of other interactions, intriguing but off the mark is The Atlantic’s article on the book, which provides an outside perspective on the whole discussion. Much better in terms of thoughtful critique are Alan Jacobs, Rusty Reno, and Greg Peters. From Peters’ perspective, the book “doesn’t raise the tenor of faithful Christian living so much as trivialize the monastic vocation.” He also points out that the real Benedict Option is to, well, be a Benedictine monk, an option still open to many. And, note also his conclusion which points out several historical inaccuracies.
As far as my opinion on all of this, I don’t completely buy it. I tend to follow Carl Trueman here, who on his blurb on the back says “This is the kind of book I am going to use to get the thoughtful people in my congregation reading and discussing.” In his Mortification of Spin podcast a few weeks back, he interviewed Archbishop Charles Chaput about his book Strangers in a Strange Land, which he commends more than The Benedict Option. While written by a Catholic Archbishop, the book has much to offer Protestants to think trough about living within this post-Christian nation. Also of note is Baptist Russell Moore’s excellent book Onward (which is only $3.31 on Amazon right now!). He also blurbed this book, but you can tell that it is more for it to be a conversation starter.
In the end, I think the value of Dreher’s book is that it throws a provocative option out there. I don’t think it is viable and certainly isn’t exegetically warranted (as in it is the “biblical” option, whatever that might mean). But, if you think it is wrong, you have to honestly think about what a better option might be. And if you’re interested in doing that, grab this book, Onward, and Strangers in a Strange Land (my next read), and let’s start a book club.