“The Benedict Option Means Precisely What I Choose It to Mean at Any Given Moment”

Rod Dreher's meme has become The Blob, engorging all it encounters, never assuming a shape you can nail down and consider rationally.

By John Zmirak Published on July 10, 2015

I wrote last week on the “Benedict Option,” a nebulous cultural strategy which its popularizer, Rod Dreher, describes as an “inchoate phenomenon in which Christians adopt a more consciously countercultural stance towards our post-Christian mainstream culture.” It’s named after St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, but Dreher isn’t recommending monasticism, or anything else that’s easy to pin down and examine. The concept’s nebulousness, I’ve come to realize, is not a bug but a feature. It allows Dreher an almost infinite freedom to imply whatever he wishes, without committing himself to a single logical or testable assertion from which he cannot backtrack when it’s contested. Nice work if you can get it.

Does Dreher counsel retreat from the public square, from civic life? It’s an urgent question because our First Amendment right to free exercise of religion is under sustained attack from the highest levels of government, the media and even many corporations. The clear-sighted, principled conservative Bruce Frohnen and I each took Dreher to task for waving the white flag in Time magazine just days after the Supreme Court’s same-sex ‘marriage’ decision. Dreher’s piece began with the boldface text: “Voting Republican and other failed culture war strategies are not going to save us now.”

So is dumping the “failed” strategy of voting Republican part of the Benedict Option? Time’s editors thought that this was what Dreher meant, which is why they used that headline — the author’s own words, excerpted from inside the piece. In fact, that call for surrender is surely why Time ran his column in the first place, in the same week that the magazine published an impassioned call for stripping churches of their tax exemptions. Time is not Christianity Today; it shows little interest in offering helpful essays for Christians in living out the gospel.

So Frohnen and I called Dreher on it. Now Dreher has a piece impatiently insisting that he never called for Christians to drop out of politics. In a Wednesday essay that either clarified or backtracked — depending on how charitably you read him — Dreher insisted that of course he wasn’t counseling surrender. He wrote:

We may have to vote Republican as a matter of self-protection, and for other important reasons (e.g., pro-life), but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is sufficient. …

Ah, I see. On June 26, voting Republican was a failed culture war strategy. As of July 8, we “may” have to vote Republican to oppose the government persecution of Christians and the killing of more than 1 million unborn children a year. But thanks to Dreher and the clarifying power of the Benedict Option, now we will do so realizing that voting alone is not sufficient.

If the contradiction didn’t magically disappear for you just then, maybe it’s because you realize that not one American Christian in a thousand fools himself into thinking that simply voting is sufficient. Here, as in nearly every other piece he writes concerning the Benedict Option, Dreher is boxing with an invisible, nameless straw man: Those stupid, shallow Christians who are so worldly and lazy that they believe they can save their souls and lead their children to Christ solely by voting for Republicans.

Who is he talking about? Nominal Christians who rarely ever attend church and live as pagans? But half of them don’t vote; more than half of the remaining half don’t vote Republican; and the half of the half who do almost certainly aren’t doing it to save Christendom. So who are his invisible villains?

Dreher certainly cannot mean the Rev. James Robison, the founder of The Stream, who speaks about politics in defense of religious and economic liberty, marriage and the sanctity of life. Robison also runs a ministry that has led hundreds of thousands of people to Christ while his organization’s unflagging work has helped missionaries dig thousands of wells for poor people across the developing world.

Dreher also can’t be talking about the Catholic Church, which lavishes millions yearly on educating non-Catholic poor children in schools across the country, runs non-profit hospitals that refuse to perform abortions, and sends medical missionaries across the world.

And he’s not referring to the Southern Baptist Convention, which pours millions into disaster relief around the planet, helping Christians in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and Buddhists in places like Nepal.

Maybe Dreher is referring not to church leaders, but instead to believers. But who are these clueless Christians who spend all their time stuffing envelopes for Ted Cruz, and pay no attention as their children grow up to become meth addicts and porn stars? Do they even exist? And if they do, do they represent a position anyone is actually defending? Show me the essays that champion that.

If such Christians exist, then they absolutely need to know about the Benedict Option. As soon as we figure out what it means.

In the meantime, we should do what we’re all are called to do this side of glory: build up our churches, join hands with other Christians, love our neighbors, protect our freedoms and heal the societies where our children will face their future.

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  • AubreyMaturin

    Too much. Take it down a notch. We are on the same side.

    I am similarly irritated by Rod’s defensive posts. But Rod, like you, is deeply concerned about the possibility of Christian community in a hostile, insidiously pagan culture. As I read him, he feels a strong anxiety about this loss of cultural legitimacy. How do you keep watch over your own heart and the souls of your family/community in the face of a powerful, hostile culture? It’s this question that he’s addressing specifically.

    The benedict option is basically a reference to a “reaction” of one group of Christians in what Rod thinks was an analogous time in the history of the church. He’s using that term as a category of actions/movements that may be necessary during our time.

  • peter

    I think Rod just went full Hillary.

    From a comment on a recent post of his:

    You told me that after Pascha that you would do at least one thread where you limited the discussion to people who already understand the concept and accepted that it was something we need to do. It’s early July now and you still haven’t done it.

    [NFR: You have a point. I’m going to start pruning these Benedict Option threads. If people want to know what I think about it, I’ve explained and explained it. They can bloody well do the research. — RD]

    This is really the perfect obfuscation loop. He’s already explained and explained that the Benedict Option means whatever is most useful for it to mean for him at any given moment. Now if people want to know what he thinks about it, they can bloody well do the research to find out that the Benedict Option means whatever is most useful for it to mean for him at any given moment.

  • Marihar

    There’s something distressingly condescending about all this, as if the whole of modern Christendom were little more than a hodge-podge of special needs children looking to Mr. Dreher for guidance. To the contrary, I believe we have all the necessary institutions and resources already in place to face whatever we need to, thank you very much. On the other hand, as a blogger, Mr. Dreher may very well bring some formidable skills of his own to our challenges. What are they, again?

  • peter

    Maybe it would help to think of Rod’s Benedict Option meme as his old Crunchy Conservatism repurposed for a new audience as Crunchy Christianity.

    Just as Crunchy Conservatism was a rather indeterminate collection of counter-cultural qualities and activities that would admit just about any applicant who at least spoke well of it, so too the Crunchy Christianity of the Benedict Option turns away no one so long as they profess some degree of counter-cultural allegiance to the name.

    From what we have seen to date, what the Crunchy Christianity of the Benedict Option actually may or may not be is of little importance at all compared to whom and what its followers publicly swear their fealty, including Christ Jesus.

  • mw006

    While I agree that Rod Dreher has been nebulous in sketching out exactly what the Benedict option would entail (something he admits himself because, historically, we are walking on untrodden ground), I don’t understand the harsh tone taken against him in the article. To me two of his basic points are beyond dispute: that voting Republican while not attending to cultural matters will do little to stem the tide of secularism and protect Christianity from the worsening onslaught; and that a certain amount of withdrawal from the dominant culture is vital to preserving the Christian faith and transmitting it to one’s children.

  • Fred Allen

    Dreher is gathering ideas, weighing options, soliciting thoughtful critiques. He hasn’t even composed the first draft of his book. He has every right to be spacious and wide ranging at this phase of the project. Why such hostility toward someone who is doing it right?

    • guest

      Thank you, my thoughts as well.
      (Maybe it’s some weird LSU game–knock the first one exploring the idea down?)

  • Yankeegator

    Zmirak still has the Freemasonic Enlightenment scales fully crusted over his eyes…

  • peter

    Rod Dreher’s attempt to borrow your watch, then sell it back to you is a fraud because it can’t be falsified. Because it can never definitively not be something, it can therefore always be whatever you would like it to be if that will encourage you to talk about it and, most importantly, write a book about it.

    Is the Benedict Option restricted solely to Christians? Really? Why? Why would Jews or Muslims be excluded? Could Miley Cyrus claim she was taking the Benedict Option? On what basis other than pure, subjective personal taste would her claim become illegitimate while yours was deemed valid? What about ISIS? Apart from that unpleasant killing of Christians and others thing, they seem to be completely on the Benedict Option bandwagon.

    Of course, now Rod Dreher has declared that he will no longer attempt to explain what the Benedict Option actually is on the basis that such questions themselves are either hostile or “non-serious”. This, however, has the unintended consequence of leaving the Benedict Option squarely in the center of what it has been from the beginning, a faith movement with Rod Dreher himself as its central figure of adoration.

    It is both amusing and sad that more Christians and others have not yet perceived the obvious before their eyes, that Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is a quintessential example of that very same modern, subjective relativism it is supposed to be protecting its followers from. But this is hardly the first example in history of this type of predatory religious fraud, and, sadly, it will hardly be the last.

  • Shannon Marie Federoff

    Wait. I thought it meant we all got to move in with Pope Benedict? Darn.

  • Micheast

    I have yet to hear one person of color talking about this, and Rod Dreher hasn’t exactly hidden the fact that he’s recently moved his family to the deep heart of white southern plantation country. I hear Rod stressing Orthodoxy a lot. Is this Benedict Option something black people and the black churches are considering too? Or is it just a convenient cover for another white southern separatist movement?

  • Paul Hughes

    Actually, many Christians have behaved for years as if political involvement were the way to save souls. Leaders have said essentially this, books written on this, churches filled with this. The equating of civic societal components with faith, the full-throated yawps every time someone is told not to pray in a DMV parking lot: these aren’t fabrications of modern monastics. Voting (via the right or left lever) is quite often equated with faith.

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