X-Men Don’t Take the Benedict Option
God Calls Us Out of Privacy and Into the Public World
In trying to understand modern America, think of that bastion of political philosophy: the X-Men. In the latest release, Days of Future Past, they face a fearsome battery of foes, called the Sentinels, who incinerate anyone who chances across their path. No matter where the X-Men go, the Sentinels appear, with a stronger will, and fists that smash and destroy.
You can feel like an X-Man today, particularly if you are a Christian or conservative. Everywhere you turn, it may seem like the culture is waiting for you, ready to pounce on your convictions. This has many of us in a tizzy. Different responses are proposed: “taking America back” and embracing minority status being just two of them.
One of the thickest, most thoughtful proposals for the second is Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” Dreher, author of the stirring Little Way of Ruthie Leming, has called for the development of “monastic communities” like those founded after the empire collapsed by the sixth-century monk Benedict. Dreher proposes following what he calls the “Benedict Option”: “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.”
Not the Moral Majority
Dreher’s proposal represents a definite departure from the program of the Moral Majority of the 1980s and 90s. Theirs was an externally-focused project; his is internally-focused. The Moral Majority wanted to win America back to a Christian-conservative fusion where God would be recognized in the public square and religion would play a significant role in political and cultural life. Dreher wants religion to flourish in smaller communities that are effectively a “shelter” from the secularizing mainstream.
Dreher’s proposal is attractive. It sounds almost dreamy, in fact. This vision of a spiritual pseudo-retirement community appeals because of its simplicity, its coziness, its preservation of the permanent things. Yes, the grand cultural vision is gone; the days of demographic dominance have faded as shadows on the mountains. But look closer at this little town, an oasis in a sea of secularity, and you will see faith, order, freedom, and thriving.
I love this vision. But here is what I fear: if current trends continue, and especially if Republicans lose in 2016, we won’t be able to enact it. The reach of our meta-government grows ever longer. The logic of the Nanny State builds on itself, after all: it solves our problems, then new problems arise (that it helps create), and finally it solves our problems once more. Big government has a bottomless appetite, and it will gobble as much of our religious liberty, sexual ethics and personal bank account as it can.
This means that we may not have this Option. The Solicitor General recently indicated, under questioning by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, that he could not guarantee that in coming days, religious institutions would be able to abide by their Bible-driven policies in offering student housing. As theologian R. Albert Mohler, Jr., has noted, that was a moment for Christians to sit up and pay attention. Here be dragons.
To be blunt, religious groups simply may not have the chance to set up “monastic communities.” We may not find “shelter” in days ahead. You can obtain the glossy brochure, buy your housing plot, and get ready for “communal withdrawal,” but if Mother Government is extending its reach into every hill, dale and Hobbiton, you may want to keep your possessions in pods. Benedict might have to move soon.
God Calls Us Into the Polis
I do believe that all Christians can practice a form of the Benedict Option even now. The local church is a form of Dreher’s vision. Every congregation is a little instantiation of the kingdom of God. Everywhere the Gospel is preached is a wardrobe into another realm. Every happy Christian family is a glimmer of the ultimate family, the Holy Trinity.
The New Testament profiles a unified people who are nonetheless scattered. The same people identified as “salt and light” are “strangers and pilgrims” (Matthew 5:11-14; 1 Peter 2:11). The heroic figures of Hebrews 11 found themselves on the battlefield, in Babylon, and persecuted unto death because of their faith. I suspect that many believers in church history, with blood on their throats and scars on their backs, would chasten us for our plans to retreat and retrench.
The odds loom like Sentinels against us. But we cannot flinch or draw back. In conversion, God calls us out of privacy and into the polis. This is where the true glory of Christianity most shines: even as our neighbor seeks to silence us, we do not strike back. Out of love, we leave our isolation, and seek to bless even those who persecute us.
This is no option; it is a divine command. More than that, even, it is a great commission.