The Christian Option

Rod Dreher explains what the Benedict Option is not:

I have written here a thousand times that the Ben Op does not advocate an Amish total withdrawal from public life, but rather what I call a “strategic retreat”: for Christians to take a few steps back for the sake of deepening our own knowledge of and practice of the faith, precisely so we can live in this post-Christian society more resiliently. The Ben Op is about getting far, far more serious about formation, as well as deepening one’s involvement with local community.

He goes on to cite Alasdair MacIntyre, the philosopher who inspired this option:

My own critique of liberalism derives from a judgment that the best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved. Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception. On the dominant liberal view government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of the human good, yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life. . . .

The flourishing of the virtues requires and in turn sustains a certain kind of community, necessarily a small-scale community, within which the goods of various practices are ordered, so that, as far as possible, regard for each finds its due place with the lives of each individual, or each household, and in the life of the community at large. Because, implicitly or explicitly, it is always by reference to some conception of the overall and final human good that other goods are ordered, the life of every individual, household or community by its orderings gives expression, wittingly or unwittingly, to some conception of the human good. And it is when goods are ordered in terms of an adequate conception of human good that the virtues genuinely flourish. “Politics” is the Aristotelian name for the set of activities through which goods are ordered in the life of the community.

Where such communities exist — and they cannot help but exist—it may be possible for some to live lives they understand.

What is distinctly Christian about this? How can common virtues turn into “ultimate human good” without Christ paying the penalty for sin, without the prior work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating people dead in trespasses and sin? Is human good available to everyone simply by virtue of reason and contemplation? Then why call for Christians to live more resiliently and intentionally as Christians when the possibility of human flourishing is available to anyone who reads Aristotle?

If the fall happened and everyone descended from Adam “by ordinary generation” is turned in on themselves, hate God, and elevate the creature over the creator, then perhaps the Benedict Option should really be the Jesus Option. That likely sounds a tad fundy. But for the stark circumstances that follow human sin, band aids and habits won’t do.

23 thoughts on “The Christian Option

  1. One possible problem with “deepening one’s involvement with local community” is that it depends upon the “community” that you’re a part of. If I lived in lovely Tribeca, Cambridge, Seattle, Council Bluffs, or Provincetown, then count me in on being deeply involved in the “local community.” But what if I lived in a not so bucolic Newark, Detroit, Compton, Baltimore – then maybe I’ll just want to mind my own business while trying desperately to leave.

    The Ben Op is situational – just like the Redeeming The City. No Christian in Pakistan, Haiti, Turkey, or Somalia can even begin to think of “cultural engagement”. Redeeming Seattle? Yes! Redeeming Port-au-Prince or Newark? No!
    The appeal to human flourishing via Christianity can only fall on deaf ears to people who are already flourishing in their rejection of God.


  2. I don’t think it will be much of an option when the American Empire fails and the US breaks up like Yugoslavia in the next 50 years.


  3. Let me say first: all of this BenOP is just clickbait to sell Dreher books. So stop it, Darryl. If I may be so bold: Dreher’s thesis is just warmed over protestantism, with a stop in the Catholic church, now sowing its oats in Orthoodoxy–to sell books and to make people follow Dreher (a new Benedict?). It’ simply a repackaged Crunchy Con, but the gays.

    Second, full disclosure: Darryl and I are good friends (he may deny it, but I’m like Glen Close in Fatal Attraction), and I’m about as 1K as you get. But even in my 1Kness I can’t embrace Dreher (Aristotle, maybe, if we clean him up through Christ). If one takes any time to read through ancient Christianity, one sees (for good or for ill) an attempt to “clean things up” from other traditions. This seems to me fruitful in the fullest sense: 2K but with a 1K mentality–everything filtered through Christ. This would drive Greg the Turrible mad. But that’s just it: everything in this blog post (and others) hinges on total depravity as Darryl lays out here, and then a monergism. I get it: that’s OPC, true reformed thinking.

    But I don’t buy it–not biblically, certainly NOT historically. But I like what Darryl is doing, because, laying aside Total Depravity and Double Predestination (two diabolical teachings if I ever saw one–no offense, since I’m essentially a Pelagian here in these parts), Darryl’s right that Christ ought to inform all that we do and think and live. No doubt. Darryl and I can agree that one ought to think about what it means to live in the eschatological reality that Christ has died and risen again for the salvation of (some) men. Death is no longer, and I’m going to assume that for those who believe this the world changes (though for Darryl those changes in lifestyle may be all for not, a la predestination). Easter morning looks vibrantly different. Glory to God!!!

    But if Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection is an eschatological reality, and I think it is (just “I think” because, as Darryl will attest, my theological knowledge ends at about 1400), then how does one separate day one from day eight in the week? If we live in the shadow of the Resurrection and Ascension, then I’m not sure where the demarcations of the kingdoms ends. I know for a fact that Darryl is equally charitable on Monday as he is on Thursday. I know not his heart, but he’s a damned good man on the exterior every time I see him. So if I understand things correctly, and again, I know not this Reformed theology (which is but a blip on 2000 years and the number of peoples who have proclaimed Christ Risen!) so I may be utterly wrong, but Darryl bleeds his Christ in my interactions with him. Even if this is a sign of Darryl’s election, then I just wonder, doesn’t he have an obligation to be like this always–not just on Sunday? Is he not a model for all who run into him? This may simply come back to election, but, GAG!

    In short (not really), Darryl, lives the BenOp (ask his students) but doesn’t need to pimp that shit (sorry!). And, to me, that seems to be the biggest difference between 1K and 2Kers (as far as I understand it–which isn’t much): IKers are pietistic in their public proclamations of a need for holiness and love and clinging to Christ (but seem to be narcissistic inherently–or else they wouldn’t talk about it/themselves and their family); 2Kers are simply asses in their strident demarcations in allowing themselves to be asses but also loving Christ (prideful in their grand, heretical theological gestures, but humble in their Publican-like sinful confessions). I get that. And I love it.

    So TL;DNR: begging the question.



  4. Darryl, can’t you spot him the 2k sensibility he lacks?

    This is politics, not ecclesiology. I’m not convinced that what Dreher is describing here via MacIntyre is meant to be what the *church* is supposed to do, nor where Christians should put their hope. I think he’s saying that Christians who want to preserve a certain set of habits and form their children and children’s children in certain ways need to undertake political action along these principles.

    The line does get fuzzy with Dreher, so that he talks about preserving faith communities by our actions rather than appealing to the Holy Spirit. But even if he’s not clear on what he thinks, it seems plain enough that what he’s describing is the preservation of a political community that happens to be related to the church, and not the church itself. All that’s ‘distinctly Christian’ here is that it happens to be Christians who form this group. What’s wrong with using MacIntyre as a guide in that context?


  5. Justin J, I’m assuming this is not the UNC forward.

    I’m grateful for an E Orthodox take on Dreher. I would only add that Dreher strikes me as a mainline Protestant with a stop in Rome. If he had spent any time among fundies or evangelicals who worried about not being fundie, he would already know about degrees of withdrawal from the world. Heck, he’d even know that worldliness is a problem.

    As for my bleeding Christ, please don’t let that get around. I have a schtick and I need to cultivate it. According to Garry Shandling, bullies are really vulnerable deep inside.


  6. Mark G., one, MacIntyre is wrong because as a Christian he doesn’t acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in producing virtue.

    Two, communities are not restricted to Christians these days, unless Dreher has a bit of Christendom nostalgia. Can an E Orthodox really pine for Western Christianity?


  7. “I’m assuming this is not the UNC forward.”

    I have no real practical problem with what Dreher proposes; in fact, most people I know live pretty close to what he proposes (I think a man walking with his wife on a daily basis acts as a nice icon of the BenOP; see what I did there?). It’s the whole branding thing that’s tiresome. All he’s asking people to do is probably what they are doing any way (except in his vision with more high church stuff/sacramentality thrown in; and, again, I have no problem with this). There’s a palpable sense where he has to drum up a crisis/crises so that the BenOp’s immediate response becomes a necessity. It’s just too ShamWow for me. I have a feeling that if he were to stay off the internet for a year and just read books and journals and newspapers, the frantic need for the BenOP would go away.

    Final thought: I don’t think I’d want to participate in a BenOP in which everyone was conscious that they were doing the BenOp. This hyper-consciousness of orthopraxis is probably just some residue from one of the major ticks in American Orthodoxy: the question of whether we’re doing it right, whether we’re Orthodox enough. I grew up in an ethnic church, so that was never a question; we just assumed everyone else got it wrong because they weren’t Greek.


  8. DG: As for my bleeding Christ, please don’t let that get around. According to Garry Shandling, bullies are really vulnerable deep inside.

    ugh. emotionalism 


  9. Justin, assuming everyone else is wrong is what real sub-cultures or communions do. Welcome to my yute. Like I say, if Rod had come from those circles and not some very assimilated Protestant background (all white Protestants except Amish are assimilated), he’d know he’d been there and may not want to do that.

    I agree about the marketing. And I will confess my envy. Some people market and others market and hit a nerve. He hasn’t missed with his last three books. And now he has a social media profile — not very crunchy con but it generates the buzz that only some of us get upon entering “the hour.”


  10. If I understand Rod rightly, the Benedict Option should already exist among confessional Reformed people who have a high view of the church. The church and home is the community in which people are raised in the faith, catechized, taught the foolishness of worldliness and equipped to persevere amid any persecution that may or may not come.


  11. But, Robert, I think you need to sub-sort a little more. Those are the confessional homeschoolers doing the BenOp. The confessional secular schoolers are the ones doing the Christian Option, putting the chutzpah on the “in the world (but not of it).”


  12. It seems to me the question front and center for Dreher and those interested the BO is how to effectively pass our faith traditions on to our kids. For folks like Dreher who care about their faith and came out of the mainline where you were the establishment, seeing that establishment crumble is entirely unsettling. In living memory of a lot of folks, you could be a C&E mainliner/RC and be pretty confident that your kids would continue on. Now we see a pretty massive retreat even among kids who were raised pretty observant. The OPC is stuck at about 30,000 and the PCA is about 10times that. All told there about 400k members of NAPARCs. But its been that way for 20yrs. Given the birthrates among conservative prots, we should have doubled in that amount time (assuming we didn’t take on any disaffected PCUSA/SBC’ers). That means that we are doing an awful job of keeping kids in the fold. True, our adherence isn’t disintegrating like it is among mainliners and white RCs, but that isn’t saying a whole lot.

    It seems to me that the Benedict option is mostly intended to be a wake up call for people who are more or less nominal adherents who nonetheless hope to see their faith (whatever it may be) passed on to their kids. Of course the people who are most passionate about this whole thing are probably those who least need to hear it. I do think there is something to the importance of a critical mass of likeminded believers for sustaining faith communities.


  13. sdb, it’s kinda weird for me to comment on since I left my faith tradition(though who’s gonna look at Vat II and call that stable or historical or say I/we were nominal), but, from what I’ve observed in the PCA, the kids who left, you could see coming from prepubescent years on. It wasn’t much of a shock. Either quirky parenting or indulgent parenting but mainly, heavy counter cultural emphasis and insular homeschooling that made it obvious, at least to me, that they were gonna trainwreck and some of them in fantastic fashion. You saw it with the D. Wilson phenomenon of “we’re going to reinvent parenting and marriage” according to medieval dreams of agrarian wholesomeness or Phillips and his Victorian era golden age garbage. Just a lot of folks who went looking to reinvent the wheel and couldn’t manage to get it round. It’s hard enough dealing with sinners, nothing like trying to do it in new and untested ways according to a book and a conference about times you weren’t actually there to know the truth about.


  14. First, what happens when we substitute the workd ‘significant’ for the word ‘ultimate’ when addressing human good? Would that alleviate D.G’s objections. In addition, what good do we receive without God’s grace whether that grace be redemptive or common? And even if it is common, that anyone is allowed to exist after The Fall indirectly shows the results of God’s redemotive grace. We should also note that apathy toward the signficant human good for our neighbor can lead to providing stumbling blocks for our neighbor when we wish to share the Gospel.

    But my problem with the Ben Op is not D.G.’s. Rather, it is the assumption that if the Ben Op’s Christian withdrawal is not the same as the Amish withdrawal, then it is an acceptable withdrawal from society. The motivation for the Ben Op is that Christianity has lost its privileged position in society. So the Ben Op is like saying if others play by our rules, we will become even more insular than we have been before. According to Ben Op apologists, their insularity is ok as long as they are insular as the Amish. Such reminds me of a sign I saw at a St. Joe’s Penn basketball game where the St Joe’s sign said: ‘Hey Penn, at least yoa’re not Nova.’

    In addition, one might adapt a Martin Luther King Jr. quote toward the Ben Op view of liberalism by saying:

    The Ben Op feeling of arrogance the it has everything to teach liberals but nothing to learn from them is not just.


  15. SDB,

    It is interesting what you say about the PCA. Given the high birth rates, growth should be higher if retention is holding.

    Some kids may move away for the reasons that Sean suggests. Others move away because most PCA churches have no idea what to do with singles. So, unless one marries and starts reproducing right out of college, you hit this period of life in which you’re unlikely to find a home in a PCA church (with some exceptions). Couple that with the fact that many of the urban PCA church planters seem to have come from less socially stable upbringings and seem to have entered the ministry as a way of trying to find emotional healing. I attended a majority-singles PCA church for two years once. The members were largely early-career white-collar professionals who grew up in the PCA, CRC, or a more conservative PCUSA or RCA church. The church was not yet particularized, so the presbytery picked the pastors. Invariably, the pastors were ex-fundamentalists who were still working through a number of personal issues. They had trendy haircuts and dark-rimmed glasses, but were otherwise total flakes. One got caught embezzling church funds. Another was so spiritually immature that he needed pastoring more than his congregation. People eventually just walked away, and scattered in a variety of directions. Many stopped going to church. They only returned when they got married and started having kids, and, then, it was often to a generic evangelical church.

    PCA church life is largely geared around procreation and child-rearing. If that’s not your stage of life, much of what goes on at church is going to seem pretty superfluous.


  16. @sean would you say Wilson and Philips are significant in the PCA? I’m not expert to be sure, but in my little corner, the Tripp is the go to guy on parenting and the Eggerich’s are the marriage folks.


  17. ” PCA church life is largely geared around procreation and child-rearing. If that’s not your stage of life, much of what goes on at church is going to seem pretty superfluous.”
    That’s not my experience. I’ve only been attached to three congregations (AZ, IN, and SC), but all three had a significant retiree population. My understanding is that we do pretty good with college grads. Adherence among the poor and working class has fallen off a cliff across denominational lines…I suspect the PCA and OPC is no exception. Likely tied to clumsy way we deal with emerging adults who don’t go to college and singles (family this and family that is nauseating and I have kids!).


  18. Evan,

    By the way, you pointed to a pew poll purporting to show some large fraction of pca’ers are not opposed to ssm. I would be very skeptical of any claims about trends in small denoms taken from broader surveys. Something like 1 in a 3000 households in US are PCA. About 10x that are PCUSA. If only 10% of PCUSA types mix themselves up with PCA, it will swamp the result. It isn’t clear to me most in the PCUSA really know the PCA exists…they may distinguish themselves from ECO or EPC – where conservative PCUSA congregations go these days, but PCA is just not on their radar.


  19. sdb, if I go back to the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Wilson was big in the PCA. A number of PCA churches were hosting his conferences and pushing his books. The Schlissel, southern slavery, Steven Sitler, Moscow-NSA cult following and finally FV and then CREC effectively splintered big chunks of the PCA. I still don’t think an FV pastor/church has lost at the presbytery level in the PCA yet( I could be wrong about that, I haven’t kept up in awhile) but it took the standing judicial committee at GA to bring any sort of discipline to bear on FV, and a number of those guys just split town, with their church in tow, to the CREC. PCA couldn’t even get Leithart indicted and last I looked the St. Louis presbytery-CTS and Bishop Keller’s presbytery had it’s fair share of FV sympathizers and Anglo-Catholics. Wilson started all that crap on the back of his “Reforming Marriage”, Classical education curriculum and Medieval feudal fantasy as biblical golden age pipe dream. Phillip’s was a cheap, maybe more localized(Texas) knockoff, but rather than medieval fantasies he went Victorian era, strict gender roles, biblical golden age crap. Still, I think Phillip’s Vision Forum made some national inroads through homeschooling networks. I’d heard of Tripp and hear of him now, but my only real familiarity with him is as counselor to Tullian and that’s been awesome.


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