Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Benedict Option

I don’t often read books “hot off the press”, but I recently completed The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher. I kept encountering references to it in my weekly reading, had a sense that I ought to read it and I am glad I did. Dreher argues, in my view persuasively, that Christians are called to live in distinct community, nurturing one another and their families, while engaging the world in mission. He also argues that our failure to do so will result in the continued collapse of the church and of society.

Since over the past couple of years I have been writing about Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, the Benedict Option dovetailed nicely into Life Together. I’ll also mention a book I read a few months ago, recommended by a friend, Desiring the Kingdom, by James K. A. Smith; the subtitle is “Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation”. Smith explores how our daily civic and social liturgies form us, how nothing is neutral, and how the Christian can be easily formed into the image of the world as opposed to the image of God. Smith’s book is a good companion to Dreher’s book because Dreher emphasizes viewing life sacramentally; in a sacramental sense we are either receiving the grace of God throughout the day as we interact with “life”, and are therefore being formed into the image of Christ, or, as Smith argues, we are allowing the liturgies of the age to form us into something else. The daily question is, “What liturgy will I join myself to today?”

When we learn civic liturgies at an early age we seldom challenge them and we come to worship that which the liturgies point to, this pulls the Christian away from desiring the Kingdom.

Dreher writes concerning some Christians today, “Instead of looking to prop up the current order, they have recognized that the kingdom of which they are citizens is not of this world and have decided not to compromise that citizenship.” Dreher then goes on to explore what this has looked like historically, what it looks likes in some places today, and what it might look like in our local environments. He looks to St. Benedict and his Rule as a touchstone, pointing out that, “The Rule teaches that God must be the beginning and the end of all our actions.”

The Benedict Option has two parts, the first is a social, philosophical, and theological overview of where we are today – it draws on the insights of a number of people and integrates them into a framework for thinking about where we are and where we are going – it is well done. The second part explores hard challenges facing us; education, sexuality, technology, economics, work.

Dreher is not a philosopher or a theologian, he is a politically conservative writer. He doesn’t always close the loop on some of his thinking, but this doesn’t happen often and it isn’t a distraction. The only real drawback for me in the book is that he uses political terminology at times, laying blame for certain problems on progressives – I find this unfortunate because no political or philosophical movement has clean hands and also because such thinking can alienate people that the book might help. There are certainly “progressives” in the Body of Christ.

This can be an important book for Christians, and whether one agrees with everything Dreher has to say, he raises questions and challenges that deserve our attention. It is a book that congregations ought to ponder – how do they measure up? If they think they have better benchmarks – what are they? Are we a distinct people? Are we living in the world but not of the world? Are we functionally the City of God? Are we Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., Stanford and Harvard, Hollywood, Wall Street…or the New Jerusalem?

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