• Paul D. Wilke

Burn It All Down

It is not uncommon for those of us out of step with the times to sink into a funk about the state of the world. Part of this pessimism comes from people like me reading way too much history about all the bad things that people have done to each other and learning just how precarious this whole civilization thing is. Homo homini lupus and all that. Depending on what I’m reading at the moment, I’m learning that we are on the cusp of ecological disaster, or are getting overrun by poor brown people out to destroy our ‘traditional way of life,’ or we’ll doomed to be destroyed by super-intelligent AI someday, or our democracy is descending into fascism, or communism, or some other -ism. Maybe it will be secular humanism and its bastard child, post-modernism (so many -isms!) that will leave us a society of spiritually deadened hedonists.

This last worry is where we find Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option. This may be surprising coming from a 'secular nihilist’ like me, but there are some points he makes that have some merit. I will discuss those agreements first before getting to my criticism of Dreher’s book.

The premise of The Benedict Option is that traditional Christianity has lost the culture wars and must come to terms with this unpleasant fact.

"Today we can see that we’ve lost on every front and that the swift and relentless currents of secularism have overwhelmed our flimsy barriers. Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians. We tell ourselves that these developments have been imposed by a liberal elite, because we find the truth intolerable: The American people, either actively or passively, approve." [1]

Of course, one could counter-argue that since around 70% of Americans still identify as “Christian," that Dreher’s assessment is a little overwrought. [2] But Christianity comes in many forms, and Dreher vehemently disapproves of the version practiced today by most Christians. His pessimism stems from an understanding that societal trends are working against Christianity. Fewer people identify as Christians these days and those who do identify practice a spiritually shallow version, at least according to Dreher, who sees no reason to think that this trend will not continue into the future.

The ‘Benedict Option’ in the title refers to his solution for this quandary. Rather than fight a losing battle against a predominantly secular society, he calls on Christians to get back to basics. To do that, Christians should pull back from society (but not pull out completely) and focus on building up spiritual communities of like-minded believers based on strict biblical principles and church traditions.

The bedrock for this renewal of Christian belief would be the church, around which social and religious life would be tightly intertwined. Believers practicing the Benedict Option would draw strength from one another – strength in numbers – and therefore be better able to resist the temptations of what Dreher sees as a godless, immoral culture that is doomed to fail. When that inevitable collapse happens, Benedict Option communities will be well positioned to sustain Christian traditions and practices through the coming dark age, much like Benedict himself did with Christianity after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

A practitioner of a conservative, more orthodox brand of Christianity, Dreher believes that the majority of Christians today practice a watered down version fatally compromised by secular modernity. The term he prefers to describe this shallow Christianity is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). [3]

MTD goes something like this in practice: ‘Yeah, there’s a God, I pray to him when I need something; he’s good and wants me to be good and will reward me with heaven when I die if I am good. I go to church as long as it’s fun, and if it’s not, then I’ll just shop around until I find something I like better that makes me happy.’ And that’s about as deep as it goes. We end up spiritually shallow philistines. Does any of that sound familiar, dear reader?

This shallow spirituality is also one of Dreher’s main problems with technology. He acknowledges that it is good in many ways, but there are serious negatives as well. If your main point is that people should lead lives centered on God and the Bible, then the Internet, television, and smartphones are not conducive to that goal. These technologies compete for our attention, and quite often they win it without much fight.

At the same time, once media has our attention trapped, it erodes our ability to pay attention to anything else, to concentrate, and perhaps most importantly to Dreher, to contemplate. We become addicted. People end up bouncing from site to site, from show to show, binge-watching, surfing, updating, and most of it demanding little to no focused attention. When we have to concentrate too much, we move on to the next thing, or we “Google” the answer.

Dreher is therefore right about the threat technology poses to our ability to think effectively. According to him, if people can’t think clearly, they’ll never be able to experience or appreciate the deeper truths that Christianity has to offer. Those “deeper truths” require quiet contemplation and reflection that is getting harder to find in our modern world. At best, the tech-savvy Christian of modern America will enjoy some form of the Moral Therapeutic Deism described above. Therefore, he says, “Developing the cognitive control that leads to a more contemplative Christian life is the key to living as free men and women in post-Christian America.” [5]

To overcome the siren song of technology, he recommends that people use the discipline of the monastery to keep it at arm's length. More specifically, no social media in the church, it only divides one’s attention in a place that should have undivided attention to the worship taking place. Keep smartphones away from kids since they can be gateways to porn, and clearly, easy access to porn is not something to recommend for the young mind trying to live according to biblical virtues. While acknowledging that it is impossible to live without the Internet, he argues that time spent online should be strictly regulated with monk-like discipline.

All this is admirable, and there is much to agree with here. Technology has given us so much, but it has also come at a high price. By all measures, we are no happier, and arguably less so, than past generations. Our online lives have come to encompass a growing chunk of our waking lives. For many of us, a glowing screen is the first and last thing we see every day. Dreher is correct to view this as a threat to any deeper thinking, not to mention any real concentrated contemplation over more existential issues like God. Posting memes and living vicariously through the seemingly more exciting lives of others is no road to happiness.

So, it was a pleasant surprise that there’s much to agree with in Dreher’s book. His critiques of modern Christianity and technology make valid points. But then, for all the sobriety of Dreher’s arguments, there lurked at the back of my mind the question of where a nonbeliever like me would fit into a world ruled by a strictly orthodox version of Christianity like his. In cases like this, I like to imagine a world entirely governed by this or that ethical system to try and get an idea if it would be better or worse than what we have today. And in this case, I do have some historical precedents to go on, and none of them are reassuring. A biblical worldview can only be maintained at a societal level by willful ignorance enforced by coercive authority. The Sermon on the Mount leads to the Inquisition, no matter how crooked and winding the road.

What place would there be in Dreher’s preferred world for my gay and lesbian friends, many of whom are far better people than me in just about every respect? Or what about people that reject the notion that Christianity has any monopoly on moral truth, that one can be good without God? I suspect it would not go well with us secularists, that we would eventually be oppressed, suppressed, marginalized, or worse. To be fair, Dreher never mentions such a goal and could counter that this black scenario I've concocted of a Benedict Option Triumphant is not plausible, that what he is advocating is more a desperate measure for a desperate time to protect a faith he holds dear.

Fair enough. But still, remember that Christianity's pacific nature changed once it transitioned from a persecuted minority to a majority with political power. Likewise, many of Mohammed's more compassionate teachings come from his time as a persecuted minority in Mecca, while the tone dramatically hardened once he had an army at his back. [6]

Just how rigorous the Benedict Option should be in practice is something Dreher seems to wrestle with his book. He alternates between jeremiads about the evils of secular culture today and the need to act now to counter the disintegrating rot of our culture, while at other times he's arguing for compromise and cordial relations with non-Christians. However, at the end of the day, his thesis is predicated on the imperative that Christians must drastically pull back from “the poison of secular culture” if they are to keep the faith alive. On Christians in public schools: “Public schools by nature are on the front lines of the latest and worst trends in popular culture.”[7]

These “worst trends” are mainly the acceptance and advance of the LGBTQ agenda, which Dreher clearly loathes. But removing kids from public schools is not enough. Even Christian schools are not theologically pure enough. His advice? “Pull your kids out.” [8] Why? “Even in many Christian schools, Christianity is a veneer over a secular way of looking at the world. It’s not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of secularism. Too many parents use Christian schools as a way to shield kids from the more harmful defects of public schooling but have only a nominal interest in their receiving a Christian education.” [9] His answer is to attend classical Christian schools that focus on the classical western canon of literature, with a heavy emphasis on Christianity’s role in that tradition. If there is not one of these schools in your area – and there probably isn’t – then he says people should homeschool. [10]

When it comes to working, Dreher’s advice is less radical but keeps to his theme that serious Christians should only deal with other good Christians as much as possible. This means patronizing Christian businesses, even if they cost more. You can also be entrepreneurial in a way that your Christian principles earn you a living. However, it also means pulling out of career fields if they clash too stridently with Christian beliefs.

Dreher acknowledges that there has to be a balance between faith and workplace, that Christians must pick their battles carefully, but still be able to decide what is too much of a compromise. [11] Medical jobs that promote abortion or euthanasia are verboten. Likewise, teaching careers that “acquiesce to teaching as normative the new gender ideology” are off limits. [12] In the end, it sounds like each person must decide where to make a stand and where to withdraw to fight another day.

The problem, of course, is finding the right balance, of not going overboard in one direction or another. The pressure to just go along to get along will often be compelling, especially in challenging economic times when families may not have the resources or community support necessary to make his Benedict Option work. How many people would be willing to quit a job that supports a family of four in reasonably middle-class comfort if they had to do something that conflicted with their Christian beliefs? Not many. There are no heroes in the unemployment line, and moral courage doesn't put food on the table for a family that depends on you. “In the end, it comes down to what believers are willing to suffer for the faith. Are we ready to have our social capital devalued and lose professional status, including the possibility of accumulating wealth? Are we prepared to relocate to places far from the wealth and power of the cities of the Empire, in search of a more religiously free way of life? It’s going to come to that for more and more of us. The time of testing is at hand.” [13] As a minority sect within a declining faith, making these moral stands in the workplace will be very difficult and too costly for most. In the end, I suspect that the vast majority will quietly acquiesce to the precarious comforts of middle-class America over the uncertainty of taking moral stands.

This finally gets us to Dreher’s preoccupation with sexuality as one of the most challenging issues for a church. He believes that marriage is between a man and woman, and sex should only take place within the confines of marriage. There's not much wiggle room in this belief either, even if he sympathizes with the difficulties involved in such a life-style choice. He believes that Christians have done themselves a disfavor by making this very narrow view of sexuality sound dull and restrictive. He tells his readers, “To reduce Christian teaching about sex and sexuality to bare, boring, thou-shalt-not moralism is a travesty and a failure of imagination.” [14] But then he spends most of the chapter in a deep dive of thou-shalt-not moralism. Thou shalt not have sex outside of marriage. Thou shalt not have gay sex. Thou shalt not watch porn.

And so on. He wants pastors and parents to emphasize all the good things about sex, but then he narrows down all of those positives until they become a tiny island of purity surrounded by an ocean of iniquity. In the end, it comes across just as dour and puritan as ever, no matter how hard he tries to re-frame it to the contrary.

But what about gay Christians? According to Dreher, we only have gay marriage “…because the straight majority came to see sexuality as something primarily for personal pleasure and self-expression and only secondarily for procreation. ” [15] That’s an astonishingly stupid conclusion to draw. The straight majority came to see sexuality as an inherent part of a person’s nature, and as such it is neither just nor reasonable to condemn a small segment of the population that is born differently. The efforts of the gay community over the last few decades were about more than just pursuing the freedom to seek sexual pleasure, and the straight majority realized this.

It was as much about respect and equality, plus the ability to love and marry just like straight people. It was about getting treated as a human being and not an abomination, as someone with the same freedoms to do the same things that straight people can do. That's it. Such an oversimplification suggests ignorance about the numerous motivations driving LGBTQ activism.

Conservative arguments against homosexuality and gay marriage, in the end, come across as cruel, judgmental, and unconvincing because they depend on scriptural arguments that fall flat outside of a narrow denominational context. This preoccupation with pleasure and the sex act itself rather than the real emotional and physical needs of human beings explains why the public debate ended in a route for conservative views on homosexuality. They didn’t bring any arguments to the table but tradition, dogma, and unrealistic advice. Those alone are no longer enough.

According to Dreher, gays “like all unmarried Christians, are called to a life of chastity. This is a heavy cross to bear, but one that cannot in obedience be refused.”[16] An interesting thing here is that Dreher seems to tacitly acknowledge the inherent nature of homosexuality (the "heavy cross to bear"). Even so, his interpretation of scripture gives homosexuals two equally unappealing options: living lives of complete celibacy or sinning against God and nature. Therefore gays are effectively banned from a community like Dreher’s if they don’t take a lifetime vow of celibacy. He may cite examples of gay Christians doing just that, but come on, it’s not going to be an option for any but a tiny number of people. He should not be surprised if those who practice non-traditional sexuality decide there are more accepting versions of Christianity available out there that permit them to be who they are while still practicing Christianity.

Finally, as I was reading The Benedict Option, there was something else that bothered me. Yes, there were areas of agreement that surprised me, as well as the expected areas of disagreement. It was only after reading Mark Lilla's The Once and Future Liberal, that I realized what that was. Lilla discusses liberalism’s self-defeating descent into identity politics. Rather than seeing themselves as part of a more inclusive democratic project with civic responsibilities to a society that extended beyond individual wants and desires ("Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"), liberals charged headfirst into identity politics and electoral catastrophe.

It feels like Dreher is advocating a similar retreat, even if it is coming from the right. The myopic agendas of identity groups get prioritized over the collective good of the republic. In the case of liberals, Lilla argues that we've seen the left devolve into a bunch of fragmented bands fighting to advance narrow agendas at the expense of any common civic good. "Because sustaining civic feeling is so difficult, democracies are subject to entropy. When the bond of citizenship is badly cast or has been allowed to weaken, there is a natural tendency for sub-political attachments to become paramount in people’s minds." [17] This sounds a little bit like the Benedict Option, doesn’t it? It not only detests liberal secular society but is contemptuous of the compromises and half-measures most Christians practice today.

So in this context, is Dreher's Benedict Option any different at the end of the day? Isn't he advocating for a kind of religious identity politics, but with less of the politics? The answer, it seems from reading The Benedict Option, is simply to disengage as much as possible and then wait patiently for a cultural apocalypse to prove you right. In other words, for all of Dreher's focus on virtue and building up the church and a healthy community of Christian believers and traditions, he's still betting on the system collapsing into some post-Roman dark age so his little tribe can get back on top again. It’s identity politics with a cross, and it's also a kind of political nihilism that would see the whole motherfucker burn down rather than cooperating with others who disagree with you in order to make a better society for all.

Contrast this with Lilla, who advocates a return to the idea of restoring civic duty to promote the kinds of institutions and traditions a stable democracy requires to thrive. In other words, he wants to repair the system we have, not to retreat from it like Dreher. Tocqueville long ago observed that Americans are cantankerously individualistic and yet enthusiastic participators, always eager to jump in to help. Tocqueville wrote, “Americans…are delighted to explain almost all the acts of their life in the light of self-interest properly understood. They are quite willing to show how enlightened self-love continually leads them to help one another and inclines them to devote freely a part of their time and wealth to the welfare of the state. [18] Indeed.

Dreher's Benedict Option, unfortunately, offers only a narrow and miniaturized version of this civic duty and one that exists mostly within the confines of a small church community. That’s not enough. Dreher says "hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government," but it’s an oversimplification to blame secular society on something when both sides share the blame. After all, it was evangelical Christians, not secularists, who voted overwhelmingly for the current president and continue to support him in high numbers. [19] To put it bluntly, evangelicals overwhelmingly identify with a president who embodies the secular nihilism Dreher abhors. But maybe that’s a point in Dreher’s favor; perhaps he would say that’s more proof just how screwed up everything is right now, how upside down our moral universe has become. However, giving up is not the answer. Hunkering down and waiting for the end is not the answer. If we’re going to get out of this shit storm, it’s going to take all of us rowing together. Otherwise, we all go down together.

[1] Dreher, Rod. "Chapter 1: The Great Flood." In The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, 18-19. NY, NY: Sentinel, 2017.

[2] Wormald, Benjamin. "America’s Changing Religious Landscape." Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. May 11, 2015. Accessed October 01, 2017.

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, 20-21. NY, NY: Sentinel, 2017.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] Ibid., 345.

[6] Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. 348-64.

[7] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, 240. NY, NY: Sentinel, 2017.

[8] Ibid., 245.

[9] Ibid., 244.

[10] Ibid., 253.

[11] Ibid., 281-283.

[12] Ibid., 284.

[13] Ibid., 294-95.

[14] Ibid., 320.

[15] Ibid., 311.

[16] Ibid., 326.

[17] Lilla, Mark. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. New York: Harper, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.131.

[18] Tocqueville, Alexis De. Democracy in America ; And, Two Weeks in the Wilderness. London: Penguin, 2003. 611.