When reading a book, especially a controversial one, it’s useful to treat it like a house we’re considering buying. From the curbside, it may bedazzle the eyes, but there’s more to a house than its walls, windows, and roof. So we step inside. There too we may see some attractions: fresh paint, new flooring, fancy fixtures.
But upon further examination, what if we discover the foundation has a huge crack in it? Then we’re looking at a huge problem. The sage advice is don’t buy it. Check out other neighborhoods. No matter how many attractive features the house may have, that flawed foundation will eventually have a deleterious effect upon the whole structure. There are other options. Go buy a house with a stable foundation.
As I read through Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, that’s the image that kept returning to my mind. Though its pages are filled with attractive features, though there’s indisputable wisdom decorating its pages, there’s also a huge crack running from the front door to the back door of the book.
The Monastery as the Ideal
The Benedict Option seeks to give Christians—especially American Christians—a strategy for how to live in a culture that's increasingly antagonistic to the faith. Dreher does an exemplary job of describing the long, serpentine road of philosophical, social, and political revolutions that brought us to where we now live—in the “post-Christian nation”.
So far, so good. I agree with much of his assessment of the problem, and of the challenges facing modern churches and Christians. Where I disagree is with his solution.
It boils down to this: @@the faulty foundation of The Benedict Option is its ideal community isn't the church.@@ It’s the monastic order founded by Benedict.
This is no minor point. It’s the assumption undergirding the whole book. According to Dreher, the location of excellence, the paradigmatic group after which we should model our churches, families, and individual lives, is a monastic community. We can’t all be monks, of course, nor should we, but we can all be monk-like in our jobs, marriages, ministries, and congregations.
Monks are like the gold-winning, spiritual Olympic athletes that we can use as our inspiration as we lift weights in our garages and run 5ks through city parks. We may never be them, but we can strive to be as much like them as possible.
And that’s the foundational crack running through the whole book. Its premise, its assumption, is that the best the church can be is a replica of a monastic community.
A Model Outside the Congregation?
The Benedict Option is telling the church that it must look for an ideal model outside the congregation where the Gospel is preached, people are baptized, and the Lord’s body and blood nourish the faithful. That model, for Dreher, is the monastery. For others, the model for the church may be more therapeutic, political, or moral in nature. It doesn’t matter. They all share the same assumption: there is something “out there” that the church needs to emulate if it is to survive and thrive.
What the church needs in a “post-Christian nation” is for the church to be the church. To be the body of Christ that Christ has made it to be. Not to look to the monastic mountaintop for guidance, nor to look to the therapeutic valley for inspiration, but to look at what Jesus has told the church she is, and to do what Jesus has given the church to do.
Some form of the Rule of Benedict will not save or reinvigorate the church. The church already has what the church needs to do her work in the world: she has the Gospel. And the Gospel is not a strategy, not a rule, not a constitution, not a plan of attack. It is the declaration of God’s reconciliation of the world—including our “post-Christian nation”—in the cross and empty tomb of our incarnate God.
Steeped in the word of God, Christians are ready to bear fruit in the world, not withdraw from it. The last thing the world needs is for believers to adopt an option that withdraws them from the public square, pulls them out of public schools, warns them about entering the fields of science and medicine, and upholds the monastic life as the ideal.
Give us a book, instead, that tells the story of faithful congregations where the word of God is taught in its truth and purity, where the sacraments are celebrated regularly, and where the pews are filled with plumbers, scientists, teachers, politicians, and elementary school children who bear witness of Christ—all in their own way—in those vocations.
That would be a solid, uncracked foundation upon which to build—not the Benedict—but the Church Option.