“In the world but not of the world” – that’s the calling of followers of Jesus (John 17:13-16). But finding the right balance in this equation has always been challenging for the people of God. In first century Judaism, many Jews opted for isolation from the world, such as the “separated ones” in the sect of the Pharisees, or to a more extreme degree, the ascetic Essene community in Qumran. Others embraced accommodation with the world, like the aristocratic Sadducees or the politically connected Herodians. But Jesus called His followers to chart a different path – insulation from the world and for the world. From the world in the sense that the values of His people would be shaped by God’s will and not by the standards of the world. And for the world in the sense that His holy people, firmly rooted and grounded in the faith, would then share the transforming life of Christ with others.
In his new book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher argues that western civilization is in a period of stark decline, not unlike the fall of Rome in the days of the ancient monk for whom the book is named. And just as Benedict left the ruins of Rome to create a new community designed to keep the faith alive so that some day civilization could be rebuilt, Dreher argues that Christians need to strategically withdraw from our degraded culture to revitalize faith, family, and community.
Some reviewers have charged The Benedict Option with hysterical alarmism (and a little subtle racism to boot). Others, like Rachel Held Evans, dismissed the book as an example of the “White Christian Industrial Persecution Complex.” After all, as Evans argued, Christians make up 75% of the population.
It is hard to imagine how these reviewers could have missed the point more badly. As Dreher points out in the opening chapter of the book, while most Americans identify as “Christians,” only a minority believe anything that could be traditionally identified as Christianity. Instead, in actual practice most Americans subscribe to what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton call “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” It is “moral” in the sense that most people think we should be nice to each other. It is “therapeutic” because most people think that God just wants them to be happy. And it is “deism” because most people think God is essentially uninvolved with the world (unless they have a crisis and need divine help to be happy again). Adherents of this new religion don’t mind “Christianity” so long as it doesn’t interfere with the materialism, consumerism, and radical individualism so endemic to our culture.
Only those who have decided to accommodate to our culture would fail to see the hostility of the current age to Lordship of Jesus Christ and those who seek to follow Him. Indeed, almost at the same time Rachel Held Evans pontificated about a “Christian persecution complex,” Princeton Theological Seminary retracted an honor it intended to give well-known author Tim Keller precisely because of his traditionalist position (“toxic theology” as one critic put it) on sexual ethics. Big government, big business, and big entertainment have all made it clear that they intend to bring as much pressure to bear as they can on anyone or any institution that dares to defy the social agenda of the LGBTQI movement. Those who chirp away about “alarmism” and a “persecution complex”remind me of Detective Frank Dreben in the old Police Squad movie telling a crowd, “Please disperse, there’s nothing to see here,” while a fireworks factory explodes in front of them!
But Dreher’s concerns about the collapse of our culture extend far beyond sexual ethics. He sees a culture filled with rampant materialism and exploitive consumerism, but so distracted by technology it isn’t even aware a problem exists. And such a culture, having lost its memory of the ancient truths about the deeper spiritual realities of the creation and its Creator, is on the verge of overwhelming the faulty levies of the vapid faith held by so many.
So his proposal is a “strategic withdrawal” from the world. Critics have distorted this into a full-fledged retreat at best, or escapism at worst. But that is not at all what Dreher has in mind. What he does intend is that those who truly want to follow Jesus must take this commitment seriously, and to take it seriously in all aspects of life: in politics, at church, in the home, in school, at work, and in the bedroom. This requires an intentional decision to think, live, and love differently than the world.
So for instance, families should set regular times of prayer and Bible reading. Politics should be about serving the local community. Churches should be about worship, not entertainment. Education should be about learning virtue (and ultimately, knowing God). Work should be a vocation, a stewardship of the talents and blessings of God for His glory. Sex should be celebrated in the context of marriage between a man and woman as a reflection of the intimacy and life-giving nature of God Himself. And technology should be a servant to these purposes, not a master of the world’s purposes.
When we built our house, we asked for added insulation to keep the house cooler in the summer. We are “in Florida,” but we did not want to be “of Florida”! The Benedict Option is a call for Christians to insulate themselves from the fever heat of a dying culture so that we can be ready to serve the culture with faith still intact. “If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world…” (p. 19).
Since Dreher comes from a Catholic/Orthodox background, some of the discussion of monasticism and high church liturgy was foreign to me. But I have been moved by this book to find ways to intentionally order all aspects of my life around the glory of God rather than the present evil age. It has made me think more rigorously about my private time before God, my work ethic in service of God, my relationship with my wife, and my commitment to love others. I strongly encourage you to read it and see how it challenges you to take your faith more seriously, as it has me.