Lutheran Reflections on The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher
Rev. John A. Frahm III
Rod Dreher is senior editor of The American Conservative magazine. He was an adult convert to Roman Catholicism but then became Eastern Orthodox in mid-life. He has authored other books, including Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and its Return to Roots, and leans more toward Agrarian paleo-conservatism rather than more interventionist Fox News neo-conservatism, like the journal he edits which was co-founded by Patrick Buchanan. Dreher is a layman in the Eastern Orthodox Church and is married with children. He is stepping out on a limb, to a certain extent, to attempt to learn from the past and make suggestions for the present and future out of concern for traditional Christianity in the western world.
Dreher’s book, along with a recent publication by Anthony Esolen, have attracted attention from conservative Christian thinkers and theologians from across denominational lines. Some have noted that these men and others are trying to build upon the thinking of The Naked Public Square by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (a former Lutheran who became Roman Catholic). These men and others are attempting to come to grips with the cultural and civil implications of the new era that the Church is entering, at least in the western world. While the matters of homosexuality, gender, and marriage are current areas of attack, they are by no means the only areas of concern.
It is generally recognized that we are entering what has been variously described as a “Post-Christian” or “Post-Constantinian” era for Christianity in the western countries of the globe. What we mean by “Post-Christian” is not the absence of the church or Christians, but basically that the church has gone into minority status and experiences varying degrees of antagonism and no longer has cultural and other civil supports. In terms of being “Post-Constantinian,” the protections, support, and public regard for Christianity that emerged with the Edict of Milan in 313 and what grew from that over centuries are now evaporating or are being forcibly removed in culture, government, and in the moral-intellectual fabric of western culture. For many of the older folks among us, this fact may simply be inconceivable or put one into denial.
While many have been listening for the other shoe to drop to signal the arrival of massive persecution on a grand scale, it is more likely to emerge as “death by a thousand cuts” or something more piecemeal. The inroads abortion, euthanasia, support for homosexuality, transgenderism, rejection of religious freedom, and attacks on the tax status of religious entities are all indicators of some larger changes emerging below the surface. Dreher also provides some very helpful critique and suggestions in regard to the dangers and damage that modern technology poses for Christians and churches.
Dreher’s book is an attempt to help Christians cope, prepare, and pass on a parallel Christian context for life and church based upon the history of St. Benedict of Nursia in a time when barbarian heretics overtook Rome. Dreher is not suggesting we all go off to start a monastery or enter into cult-like compound, but to engage in some practical and purposeful strategies to be a parallel culture within a hostile society.
Now as a Lutheran reading Dreher’s book there are some things that might stand out as a little rough. More than once Dreher refers to the Lutheran Reformation as a “revolution” of Luther. Luther critiqued those who tried to make the Reformation into a revolution (see his critiques of Karlstadt, Zwingli, Anabaptists and others). Dreher doesn’t make any real distinctions amongst the various Reformers. He doesn’t seem to understand that Luther was a conservative, catholic reformer as opposed to the radical reformation of the Anabaptists, and others.
He isn’t really familiar with Luther but only a common caricature. This isn’t surprising as Dreher is of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox background primarily. Dreher does mention Dietrich Bonhoeffer positively. Early on in the book Dreher also makes a critique of Occamist Nominalism, which is an entire discussion in and of itself. While I’m no expert in Nominalism, it would seem Dreher still has a foot in Roman Catholicism rather than Eastern Orthodoxy and the thinking of the Cappodocian Fathers.
Dreher does, however, mention more than once in the book, that he is not suggesting that his plan is a substitute for the theology of one’s confession of faith. Dreher is not writing to do our theology for us. We know where to go to recover our evangelical and catholic orthopraxis, but need to re-engage in recovery more deliberately and broadly through intensive parish catechesis and a pastoral economy of stewarding the mysteries.
As other reviewers have pointed out, Dreher does some good cultural and moral analysis in his book, but presents an idealized or even Romanticized picture of Benedictine Monasticism. Of course, in the evangelical and catholic confession of the Book of Concord, Lutherans have some concerns with monasticism on various grounds. As the Confessions see monastic life, what was originally a voluntary association became a burden upon conscience beyond the confines of the Word of God.
Those who did not have the personal gift of being single often suffered damage to their faith through the obligations of monastic life, as was also the case in regard to mandatorily single clergy. Dreher is not making that kind of a suggestion, thankfully. No doubt, this is something he understands having moved from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy. Now undoubtedly many good things came from monastic life in terms of scholarship, resources for the prayer life of the church, artistic works, and so forth, but notably, the Augsburg Confession observes:
They taught that vows were equal to Baptism; they taught that by this kind of life they merited forgiveness of sins and justification before God. 12] Yea, they added that the monastic life not only merited righteousness before God but even greater things, because it kept not only the precepts, but also the so-called “evangelical counsels.” 13] Thus they made men believe that the profession of monasticism was far better than Baptism, and that the monastic life was more meritorious than that of magistrates, than the life of pastors, and such like, who serve their calling in accordance with God’s commands, without any man-made services. 14] None of these things can be denied; for they appear in their own books.
Not only did monasticism often lead to seeing justification by human works, it also grossly led to a distortion of a Christian’s various daily vocations in life, where God has put them to serve in relation to their neighbor in the world. It would be well to review what the Augustana and Apology as well as the Smalcald Articles say about the problematic aspects of monasticism.
But herein is where Dreher can be helpful in our day to keep us in the tension between being “in the world but not of it.” “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training,” is something we subscribe to. Dreher points the reader toward asceticism as “askesis” or “training” in self-denial to focus on the things of God. So long as such is not done for self-justification then we might regard such as “fine outward training” when interpreted in an evangelical way. And here is where a Lutheran is going to say, “I wish he was familiar with a Lutheran understanding of vocation.” I think this is where we can read Dreher and find some easy substitutes to plug into the overall benefits of his thought.
In terms of practical considerations, Dreher strongly commends Christians mutually supporting one another without attempting to dilute one’s theological confession or engage in unionism. He’s suggesting cooperation in the context of social interaction, shared gardening and food production, mutual business support, homeschooling, and other educational enterprises where proper.
Dreher also points to the need to be shrewd in regard to matters of government, religious liberty, and free exercise of religion in the public square. He means for Christians to be prepared legally, financially, and in terms of options for education and work for income. The LCMS has wisely sought expertise from outside organizations like The Becket Fund and the Alliance Defending Freedom for our post-Roe vs. Wade and post-Obergefell society. Dreher is not advocating complete abandonment of political activity.
Various other pro-marriage, pro-life and civil liberties groups are also active in defending religious liberty and the rest of the Bill of Rights, which are important for Christian and non-Christian citizen alike. These are important issues where Christians seek to live faithfully to what Scripture says about government authority while also noting where civil resistance is appropriate where civil authority oversteps what Romans 13 intends. While honoring proper authority we are not obliged to trust princes. Original sin infects both individual citizens and those in authority. These realistic observations and very plausible cultural forecasts in The Benedict Option are important for us all to consider to be “wise as serpents but innocent as doves” as we seek to be good stewards of what is entrusted to us.
The subject of education takes up a goodly amount of space in The Benedict Option. Dreher commends the renewal of classical Christian education. Many confessional Lutherans have already been taking up this cause for some time. The Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education has been hard at work on this, and the online venture of Wittenberg Academy provides a virtually global resource for the church.
Dreher likewise strongly urges that where classical Christian education cannot be had reasonably or where there are families who cannot afford it, that homeschooling should be done wherever possible, or in some combination with what is feasible. Dreher, along with others, has come to the conclusion that in most places the public schools are for the time being a lost cause to protect our children from the new morality (as others have pointed out, a Gnostic morality) but also to properly catechize children in a way that is not compartmentalized.
In terms of higher education, Dreher observes that Christians will need to reclaim their higher education institutions for theological orthodoxy and serious piety (not just seminaries). Among our own institutions, we have a mixed bag in terms of worship, fellowship, theology, ethics, evolution, gospel reductionism, and accommodation of the sexual ethic du jour.
In other places, he suggests a theologically rigorous while personally supportive campus ministry program (though he doesn’t use the term “campus ministry”). Dreher is quick to observe that just because a person goes to a Christian school, or even a school within one’s own denomination, this does not guarantee any more theological orthodoxy amongst the faculty (not just the theology department or dean of chapel), or a more holy and edifying lifestyle on campus amongst the student population.
Oversight visitation of church college campuses in these various moral and theological matters is overdue. The examination of the theological faculties and chapel services are not the only aspects of campus that are matters of confession – science, sociology, education, history, student clubs, and other areas also are critical. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.
As Dreher points out, when we are moved to start new faithful schools at various levels, Christians need to be prepared to bear crosses and not to make as much money yet also consider the needs of those Christians who are unable to pay as much. Dreher also emphasizes also that Christians need to give sacrificially so that those with expertise, training, and good professionalism are honored respectably. With these changes on the horizon, this also means that we need to find ways to bolster caring for church workers and other Christians who need help in retirement or disability as a diaconal manifestation of mercy.
Throughout the book, Dreher commends strong catechesis in churches that is not compartmentalized to simply just be a “class” with minimalized expectations and detached from the larger liturgical life of the church. While from a confessional Lutheran point of view there are issues with how Dreher speaks of sacramentalism and his theology of liturgy, his general call for returning to historic liturgical practices with solid theology behind it is very laudable, all within the context of a solid life of prayer, and notably, also, church discipline upholding up Christian truth.
The work of the Concordia Catechetical Academy and recent resources published by Concordia Publishing House can help in this regard. (But perhaps, as Dreher might point out, there will come a time when publishing and literature distribution may need to be done underground.) The challenge of the Church Growth Movement and its related spawn have urged confessional Lutherans to go back and study their own liturgical theology and hymnody.
But there are many quarters of our synod where that theological and liturgical renewal is still unknown and barely tolerated. There are some quarters where catechesis is only a shadow of what it once was. May we remain faithful to those treasures and not seeking to import what is not of our heritage from either direction. There would also be some wisdom in congregations building up quality parish libraries with some serious depth and theological orthodoxy, not just pop religion or fiction.
Additionally, opportunities and facilities for retreats to help sustain not only church workers or age-segregated groups, but families and Christian singles in the faith amid the cultural onslaught could be something given a more deliberate and liturgical consideration among us. Perhaps congregations in more peaceful or restful places, Lutheran camps, campuses, campus ministries, or cottages or even urban apartment complexes could be organized not as “camps” for 1960s style age-segregated religious recreation, but as serious spiritual retreats and places of continuing catechesis and training in the faith but with a Lutheran understanding of vocation and justification by grace alone under-girding it all.
They could also serve as inexpensive hostels for faithful Lutherans traveling and so become something like a modern version of that mutual support and hospitality the early church knew in Acts 2. These services can’t cost individuals thousands of dollars to use of these things or to go on retreat. Chaplains, deaconesses, and theological faculties could be engaged to help enrich, oversee, and strength such places and be a clearing house for materials to take home back into the battle. These, then, in turn can become mission outposts for the times of nihilistic darkness. We will need retreats for restoration, as the world we live in is surpassing the vision of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, a beastly technocratic Tower of Babel 2.0 police state.
Part of what Dreher is attempting to do with The Benedict Option is to learn from the experience of Christians past chapters of Christian history where there has been oppression and alienation from the culture or government. Dreher suggests cultivating “parallel structures” to that of the Post-Christian culture. Dreher points out how some attempted to do this under Communism in Poland and elsewhere.
Dreher wants to limit the exposure of Christians and especially children to the corrosive effects of the hostile culture as well as provide practical resources for even ordinary aspects of life that may be taken away because of edicts of political correctness or outright hostility (Christians providing baked goods or arranging flowers without being forced to compromise their confession of the faith). In some instances, Christians already have some “parallel structures” to offer alternatives to organizations that have either watered down their Lutheran commitments or abandoned it altogether.
Parallel structures or ending old weakened institutions in favor of newly constituted Gnesio-Lutheran institutions may be needed for education at various levels: finances, legal, insurance and retirement benefits, hospitals, retirement investing, alternatives to compromised monetary systems, church resources, construction, resources for changing tax situations for our institutions and clergy, Fourth Amendment protections, private property rights for religious institutions, multimedia for education, vacation spots, safer technology, etc.
And getting rid of as many strings attached to us as possible may be wise. As radio talk show host, Dave Ramsey, is apt to remind us, “Debt is slavery.” Maybe there is room here to strategize on providing alternatives for probable scenarios where Christians may lose their businesses or where our confession of faith could be compromised by continuing to use a traditional public service or business. At the same time, we don’t want to lose sight of vocation from a Lutheran point of view.
Dreher covers a lot of territory throughout The Benedict Option. One thing that I find notably absent from Dreher, at least in a direct reference, is a clear sense of or articulation of Christian eschatology. It may be there, but it isn’t evident to me. Perhaps pop American Christian views on eschatology have soured some on speaking in these terms. Perhaps some would take speaking of the End Times and bearing the cross in that context as defeatist or counterproductive. “Why fight or do all this since it’s all going to burn?” someone could cynically conclude, however wrongly.
Perhaps good old Millennialism or the red herring of Dispensationalism gave us a bad taste in our mouths to speak of eschatology but given the global movements in these religious and cultural/moral matters, one is reminded of the saying of our Lord, “as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be when the Son of Man returns.” In the days of Noah, the thoughts of man’s heart were only evil all the time.
Perhaps it is in politically correct utopianism or while trusting in political princes that people will say “peace, safety” when the winnowing fork will be applied at the last. To be sure, we are not to be in the business of predicting the day or the hour but we are to note the change of seasons. Also absent from mention in The Benedict Option is the fact that we are not on a level playing field with Lucifer and his demons when it comes to mounting an attack — it would seem wolves rarely feel the need to don sheep’s clothing anymore. The epistles are rife with eschatology and encouragement to be watchful and ready.
In Dreher’s The Benedict Option (or BenOp, as its popularly abbreviated) the author primarily calls out to conservative Christian laymen to be strategic, thoughtful, and involved in preparing for the coming storm against the Church in the western world. Pastors too should be thinking of these things along with the laity. “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it” (Proverbs 27:12).
We should not put our trust in princes and where authority steps outside its bounds, obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). We would be wise in our various individual stations in life, and collectively as congregations, educational institutions, church organizations, and synods to anticipate the coming changes and prepare wisely but in faith with practical game plans enacted.
There will be times where we need to stand firm and confess and suffer even martyrdom, and there will be times to flee to the hills. And the Lord has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. That is, hell will not be able to withstand its advance.
At the same time, there is no promise that a denomination, a synod, or a particular congregation will abide unto the end. As the canticle, Kyrie, God Father, says, “Guard our faith, the gift we need the most.” We are not the saviors of the church, only the Lord is the Savior and foundation of the Church. The church is founded upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Himself as the cornerstone but we are charged with stewardship, sacrificial giving in thanks, and taking up our crosses, each according to vocation, in repentance and faith.
Our call is to remain steadfast and wise in our God-given vocations, give an answer for the hope within us, and to be wise stewards of what is entrusted to us, discerning the seasons. We are to guard that which makes us Christians and which makes the Church, being stewards of the mysteries of God.
The marks of the Church, the rightly preached Word and the rightly administered sacraments are the life of the church. To support those marks we might consider Dreher’s analysis and suggestions and benefit from them. For the discerning and catechized confessional Lutheran, Dreher gives us some practical direction, but our theology must ultimately drive what is done.
Will the culture come back around and the rain shower of the Gospel come back through the western world on a similar scale as before or will this be the situation we persevere in until the Last Day? That we do not know. We confess the truth along a lonely way in this world but it is also a well-worn path ahead of us. It is the lonely way… together, following in the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
But either way, it is wise to prayerfully consider these things and speak of these things with each other, richly engrossed in Scripture and Confessions, receiving the gifts of God in the Divine Service. However, one thing is clear, we cannot wait around with things on cruise control with the way we’ve approached mission and ministry collectively since the 1980s, blithely picking up the cast off methods from the generic protestants down the street or wallowing in Pietism. We cannot rest in the nostalgia of a “Garrison Keillor-style church basement Lutheranism” or wait around for the next Barna Research book or and then uncritically implement whatever suggestions Barna offers to pander to the cultural trends.
We cannot go on imitating the Neo-Evangelicals seeker-senstive model or the ELCA’s gospel reductionism. We cannot be ostriches and avoid talking theology. Worship practices and catechesis that is watered down or importing doctrine, practices, and piety from other confessions is ultimately inoculating our people against confessional Lutheranism not introducing them to it. It is time we examine our parish life and institutional life in this regard. If our people can be raised “in the LCMS system” and still not recognize Gnesio-Lutheranism as their own heritage, then something is and has been seriously wrong. It is a lie of a bifurcated mind for some to say we are united in doctrine but have disagreements in merely in practice. It is time to repent of looking for a magic button or a personality driven solution for our challenges. It isn’t just a matter of putting the right people in the right positions.
As Dreher would admit, the book is not an exhaustive plan. Nevertheless, the BenOp is certainly not a magic button in new packaging. These are important matters to hash out with some purposeful diligence in the present moment. The tornado sirens are sounding. As we prepare for the approaching storms we don’t want to just jump on the latest thing, but ponder a strategy reflectively. Some have written thoughtful critiques of the weaknesses or limitations in Dreher’s plan. Read those as well.
It is time, as the storm clouds approach, to be learning from the saints who have gone before us, preparing in practical ways as well. We prepare with our heads lifted up watchfully looking for the return of Christ while bearing our crosses through tribulation, surrounded by various forces in spiritual war, and worshiping before the throne of the Lamb who was slain and yet lives.
I’m grateful to Rod Dreher for getting us thinking about these things. These are needful things for laity and clergy to consider regarding our life together in this arrival of what Frederic Baue called a “Therian Age” (see Frederic Baue, The Spiritual Society: What Lurks Beyond Postmodernism).
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. 8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace… 1 Peter 4:7-10