The last couple of weeks have brought a number of reactions to Rod Dreher’s eagerly-awaited book on conservative Christians in contemporary culture, The Benedict Option. For many, it’s been an interesting litmus test for where particular “personalities” in the Christian (and particularly evangelical) reside ideologically. Most critics of the book see the book as a call for almost complete withdrawal from the broader culture (even though it isn’t). James K. A. Smith recently penned what Mark Bauerlein at First Things called a “hatchet job” of The Benedict Option and two other recent, same-vein books (one by a recent favorite of mine, Anthony Esolen). Even giving Smith the benefit of the doubt (which I am apt to do), the article seemed harsh and unnecessarily presumptive.
One of the better “takes” on Dreher’s book came from Ross Douthat of the New York Times. Douthat uses the recent issue of Russell Moore and the Southern Baptist Convention as a pivot for discussing “Christians in the Hands of Donald Trump.” The last half of the article brings in Dreher’s book, warning of seeing the book as “prophecy” while also pointing out the good job Dreher does in talking counter-culture.
Today Smith finally posted his review of The Benedict Option over at Comment Magazine (a quarterly journal well-worth the subscription). The snark is mostly gone. It is clear that Smith is more optimistic than Dreher about “what happens next.” It’s actually a great review and wonderful counter-point to Dreher’s perceived pessimism. What is unfortunate, though, is that Smith is just short of saying “peace, peace when there is no peace.” Almost, but not quite.
Smith seems to assume that contemporary Christianity has both the resources and the skills to “live Augustinianly” in American culture. One could say that most of Smith’s work in the last decade have pointed out the fact that the resources are there, but the skills to understand and live well aren’t. The best of the Benedict Option (at least as I understand it) is the challenge to acknowledge the resources that the church has (both in Scripture and in rich traditions too often neglected in contemporary Christianity) and our need to relearn the practices that will help us live faithfully. For Dreher, a moment of retreat, of reconnoiter, is totally appropriate and even necessary. And I would have to agree. Don’t get me wrong: I can’t speak for every church or denomination out there. But as best as I can tell, there are real reasons why young people are leaving the church and not returning, why Russell Moore can be called to the carpet for doing his job rightly and face closed-door meetings, why orthodox Christians seem unable to articulate orthodox truth well to a world that has rewritten societal DNA in significant ways over the last half-century.
I dream of the day where more Christians can “live Augustinianly” in the world around us. But many of us are not prepared to deal with a culture of expressive individualism that has no residual respect for a religious worldview they see as undefendable (and that is ultimately undefinable by those who supposedly hold to it). Smith may very well be ahead of the curve, further down the road than the rest of us. What he has to say might be vital for helping us learn to “live Augustinianly.” But for those of us who, individually or collectively, just aren’t there yet, the Benedict Option might be part of the framework we need to see ourselves in the world rightly, a way for us to “lift our drooping hands and to strengthen our weak knees, to make straight paths and to heal things recently put out of joint.”
(image of Augustine and Benedict with Jerome in the middle; artist unknown; from artclon.com)