Should 21st-century Christians live like monks?

Should 21st-century Christians live like monks?

The Benedict Option
by Rod Dreher, Sentinel, £20

This is the age of the New Low. The Benedict Option is the latest in a string of books coming out of America arguing that the status of Christian civilisation in the United States (and, by extension, the West) has sunk to unprecedented depths. It takes its place alongside Out of the Ashes by Anthony Esolen, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society by RR Reno, and Strangers in a Strange Land by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.

Familiar foes swarm across the pages of The Benedict Option: secularism, materialism, hedonism, relativism and the rest. Traditional Christianity is being overrun and the consequences are industrial-scale commodification of embryos, the ubiquity of hardcore pornography, a rising tide of unbelief and countless other evils. Things could hardly be bleaker for a once proud and secure Christian nation. Yet Dreher’s book is laced with warnings of even darker times to come. This isn’t going to blow over. The arrival of Donald Trump should fool no one. He is not the cavalry.

In striving to rouse his fellow Christians from the slough of despond to which he himself has (of necessity) led them, Dreher pulls off a neat trick. He appropriates for traditionalists the familiar tropes of “resistance” that are normally the preserve of the progressive Left. Here is a conservative speaking of enduring a “harsh, relentless occupation”, of living in “internal exile”, of churches “colonised” by mushy pseudo-religion. Dreher allows himself to dream of “isolated pockets” of rebellion growing with time into “networks” that will outlast the occupation. Best of all, he puts traditionalists in the vanguard of the new “counterculture”.

In his publicity shot, Dreher looks quite the middle-aged rebel: shirt unbuttoned, unruly hair, bushy, variegated beard, Sartrian glasses that would look dandy in a café on the Left Bank. Conservative Christians will feel either bewildered or exhilarated by his invitation to pilfer some of the dark glamour of revolution. Leftists will be appalled.

Dreher goes at his subject at quite a lick. Nevertheless, this is a book with serious intellectual ballast. Its tutelary spirits include Alasdair MacIntyre, sociologists Zygmunt Bauman and Philip Rieff, and Václav Benda, the Catholic mathematician and dissident of the communist era. Benda’s big idea was the “parallel polis”, a separate but porous society existing alongside the official order.

Dreher’s own road to Catholicism began when he wandered into Chartres Cathedral a “sniffy teenage agnostic” and walked out craving to be part of the Church. (He is, I should add, now Eastern Orthodox.) What excites one of his interviewees is maintaining a culture so that “when this social experiment in sexuality we have going on fails – and it will – these people are going to have someplace to go”.

It is, of course, to the Benedictine tradition that Dreher turns for ultimate inspiration. Monks acquire true liberty by submitting to a rule of life, ordering themselves to God in a structured way. They provide the rest of us with fundamental exemplars of order, prayer, work (particularly useful, Dreher believes, as Christians head into a time when their professions of choice may be closed off to them), asceticism, stability, community, hospitality and balance. The rest of us must follow suit in our own way by taking radical steps to keep the sacred order present to ourselves, our families and our communities in desperate times: the Benedict Option.

Dreher uncovers some gems among communities out there already embodying the Option and inviting emulation. At The Hall of Men in Wichita, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants come together to pray, discuss the works of a great figure of Christian history and then drink beer. On the Adriatic coast of Italy, the Tipi Loschi (“usual suspects”) have named their community school after Chesterton with a motto taken from The Everlasting Man.

Advice pours out of Dreher: “turn your house into a domestic monastery”; “recover liturgical worship”; even “buy Christian”. Sex outside marriage and technology are singled out as the two greatest forces pulverising the foundations of the Church, so Dreher devotes a chapter to resistance tactics for each. Along the way, he offers some wise counsel against outright inflexibility and insularity, citing Romans 12:8: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”

But there is nothing that might be called backtracking. If anything, Dreher misses opportunities to show more humility about egregious injustices committed when traditional Christianity held sway.

Could it take off over here? Perhaps I am too complacent or naïve or faint-hearted, but I couldn’t quite buy the whole apocalyptic package. And yet I won’t forget this book in a hurry. It has the power to stimulate all manner of fresh reflections, small adjustments, quiet renewal. And who knows where that might lead one day?