On Friday I had the pleasure of being a guest at the annual conference of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters, to hear Rod Dreher speak on—yes, you guessed it—the Benedict Option. I had a number of questions about the details of the Ben Op, and many of these were answered on Friday. Indeed, having read plenty by Rod on the Ben Op and now having heard him, I am perplexed by those who think he advocates withdrawal from all civic engagement. Perhaps the monastic analogies he favors have gripped the imaginations of his critics and distorted their reading of him.
I have been accused of defeatist and separatist views myself, within my small Reformed subculture. Certainly Rod and I share a number of convictions. We both believe that the culture war is over and that “our side” has lost. We both believe that it is pointless simply to shout Bible verses louder, or to base arguments on the private religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, or to huff and puff that we must be taken seriously because Christianity was important way back when. And we both believe that the language of exile is appropriate for the imminent condition of Christians in the USA. But these beliefs do not logically demand that we withdraw into the mountains, dress in animal skins, and live on locusts and wild honey. Rod and I both still believe that Christians should be involved in their communities, cast votes in elections, and be “in the world but not of it.”
The talk on Friday night made all of that clear. And it offered an outline of the assumptions of the Ben Op, which might be summarized as follows:
- Conventional politics will not save us. Nota bene: This is not the same as saying that political engagement must cease. It is simply a claim about the limited expectations we should have regarding political engagement, particularly at the national level.
- The church is not the world. As Rod merely agrees with Jesus on this point, it should not be too controversial.
- Christians must retrieve their own traditions as the fundamental sources of their identities. Again, with the Apostle Paul on his side here, Rod is hardly breaking dangerous new ground.
- Christians must prioritize the local community as their sphere of action. Once more, nota bene: This is not, repeat not, the same as saying that Christians should head for the hills. It is simply to say that they should be far more concerned for what is happening in their neighborhood than on Capitol Hill.
- What we face is not a struggle within a culture but, strictly speaking, a clash of alternative cultures. This is where the language of the end of the culture war needs to be understood correctly. It is not that we are to surrender to the dominant culture. It is rather that we are to model an alternative culture. And we are to do so first in our local communities.
Erroneous readings of the above points are what have led to the most heated criticism of the Ben Op proposal as alarmist and defeatist. Some criticisms are rooted in generational differences. Those who grew up in an era when homosexuality was the love that dared not speak its name seem blind to how completely the politics of sexual identity has transformed the cultural, political, and legal landscape. What can one say to such other than “Open your eyes!” or “For pity’s sake, talk to your teenage grandchildren!”? Other criticisms are perhaps the result of Christians' being so in thrall to the tropes and conventions of Western politics, and so convinced of their own social importance, that they hear any call to break with that culture as a call for unconditional surrender. But Rod is not calling for surrender. He is calling for new terms of engagement.
Rod’s use of Vaclav Havel is critical to understanding this point. Does anyone really think that Havel simply acquiesced in the dominant system in Czechoslovakia? What he did in his influential essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” was to propose a form of radical political resistance that refused to play by the rules of the game as set by the Communist authorities. “Anti-political politics,” as Havel dubbed it, was in a sense the most powerful and humane form of political action in the Eastern Bloc. And it was available to Everyman, the shopkeeper as much as the playwright or philosopher.
Whatever the democratic/egalitarian rhetoric, our current politics in the USA practically favor the elites and disempower the weak. Given this reality, does the Havel/Dreher model really represent retreat? I would suggest the opposite: that it actually represents a move to new and more potent forms of democratic political resistance. Such is going to be painful. Taking stands in the local community—and doing so in a Christian way that refuses to fight hate with hate—will be difficult and at times risky. It will require hard stands at key moments—harder and more costly than merely pulling kids out of public schools, for example. Jobs may be lost and freedoms forfeited—but basic obedience to the Christian calling makes these things non-negotiable.
This will also involve a huge change of mindset for the church. From Southern Baptist boycotts of Disney and theonomic tub-thumpers screaming blue murder from crackpot websites to Roman Catholic grandees assuming that their academic achievements require that the world take them seriously, Christians have proved adept at the ways and means of worldly ‘political politics.’ The pitiful fruit of such strategies is there for all to see. Those days are now over and we must decisively break with the methods and ambitions which they represented.
It thus seems to me that Rod is not first and foremost calling for an alternative Christian culture in terms of institutions such as a retreat to a monastery in the Rockies, though it does not necessarily exclude the creation of such alternatives. Rather he is calling for an alternative Christian culture of the mind and of the spirit which seeks its identity elsewhere even as individual Christians necessarily go about their daily callings.
In closing, I would like to propose an alternative way of thinking of past Christianity which may help us at this juncture. Perhaps what has been historically normative for over 1500 years in the West—a Christianity enjoying worldly power and influence, broadly conceived—is in fact theologically exceptional. As such, what we are witnessing is not the overthrowing or the jeopardizing of the church but rather a return to “business as usual” as the Bible and the nature of the gospel and of the church would lead us to expect. Maybe the Benedict Option and my own proposed Calvary Option are really two ways of saying the same thing—that the church needs to be the church and Christians need first and foremost to be Christians before they engage the civic sphere. Maybe our current problem is therefore not that society is secularizing but rather the opposite—that the American church is finally being forced to desecularize. This will be painful. It will involve hard choices. It will involve increasingly obvious differences between the church and the world. It will not allow for compromise. But in the long run these will be good things.
And under the Rule of Benedict, I am delighted to report that eating locusts will remain optional. So there is some good news, after all.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.