Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, has been something of a lightning rod (pun intended) in current discussion. Some have taken an enthusiastic liking to it, while others have not been so favorable towards it. Much of the concern seems to cluster around the idea that Dreher is advocating for Christians to withdraw from the wider culture. To some, it sounds like old-school fundamentalism: “Leave the corrupt world behind and only spend time with Christians!”
I think such a reading misses Dreher’s point. Dreher acknowledges that the Benedict Option is really about the church being the church. The church must stop compromising with the world and be a distinctive community: “A church that looks and talks and sounds just like the world has no reason to exist” (121).
Dreher’s strongest points come when he addresses the internal life of the church. He calls for the church to hold the line on sound doctrine and practice. She needs to stop being influenced by the world and reclaim its tradition and heritage. She must grow deeper “roots” to weather the cultural storm.
Reflections on Church and Culture
Dreher goes beyond calling the church to reform herself, however, and expands his discussion to how the church should relate to the wider culture. The church-culture relationship is something which theologians have argued about throughout the history of the church. (Tertullian famously said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” trying to relate reason and faith). Although there may be some growing consensus in the broader evangelical world, one position on the church’s cultural engagement will probably never win over the majority of the church. Consequently, Dreher’s ideas will always be open to critique. Two key assumptions drive Dreher’s proposal for cultural engagement.
First, Dreher assumes that “Christendom” is a good thing.
For centuries, western society was upheld by a Christian social “imaginary.” The church heavily influenced the culture so much so that certain beliefs were woven into the very fabric of daily life. Dreher sees three key beliefs as part of the western Christian social imaginary, especially in medieval Europe:
- God created the world which order and meaning. All things are signs which point to God
- Society is grounded on this higher reality
- The world is infused with spiritual force and reality
Dreher sees these beliefs as good things. He also thinks that Christendom was a good thing. But was it? Even Dreher admits that medieval Europe had significant problems: “Medieval Europe was no Christian utopia. The church was spectacularly corrupt, and the violent exercise of power–at times by the church itself–seemed to rule the world” (25). Yet Dreher sees the social cohesion and integration of the medieval worldview as being worth enduring the difficulties and atrocities perpetuated by the church.
It is at this point where Dreher’s proposal runs into trouble in my estimation. There may have been greater social cohesion within medieval Europe because nations were “Christian,” but at what cost? Great violence? Early death?
When the church adopts the the sexual libertarianism of the contemporary culture, it is compromised. It is no less compromised, however, when it uses violence to enforce its will. The church is defiled when she gets in bed with political power and becomes the religion mandated by the state.
Christianity is a “faith.” One thing faith cannot be is coerced. Faith, although a gift from God, is also an act of the will. Christendom, in my estimation, encourages widespread nominalism: people are “Christians” because they were born into it, not because they were born again by God and exercised true faith in Christ. This is the problem with the Bible Belt! People attend church or even take on the label of “Christian” without having ever been made new by the gospel.
Second, Dreher assumes a sacramental view of life.
According to Dreher, the people of the medieval ages believed that, “All things that existed, even time, [were] sacramental. That is, they believed that God was present everywhere and revealed Himself to us through people, places, and things, through His power flowed” (24). Dreher sees the erosion of a sacramental view of life as sucking out the meaning and significance of life: “The long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning has delivered to us a place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection” (46).
Is a sacramental view of life true? It is true that the, “Heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). It is true that all people everywhere at all times know God exists, but suppress the truth in unrighteous (Romans 1:18-23). But such verses in Scripture do not support a sacramental worldview.
If God reveals Himself through people, places, and things, it seems that superstition and idolatry can abound. If God truly reveals Himself through things other than Scripture, then those things could be worthy of worship. Medieval Christians would often make pilgrimages to all over Europe just to be in the presence of relics. The Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin, rightly saw such veneration of objects and icons as idolatry.
If God’s revelation of Himself is untethered from His word, then people can find “signs” in all kinds of things. But God explicitly gives us the proper interpretation of events in His word. Unless we have special revelation, we cannot interpret the course of history or particular events as being “of God.” Of course, God is sovereign. Of course, God is directing history for His own purposes. But that is a long way of being able to properly interpret the events of one’s life as being God’s hand. Why did you get sick last week? Was it because God is punishing you for some sin? Or for some other reason? We will probably never be able to know this side of eternity.
Rather than adopting a sacramental worldview, I think a better construct is to adopt a “typological” worldview. Typology, first and foremost, is a way of interpreting the Scriptures. The Bible speaks of “types” where people, places, and institutions point to Christ. Adam is a famous example (Romans 5:14). Just as Adam was head of the human race and his actions affected all people, so Christ is head of the new humanity and His actions bring justification to all who believe. In this sense, Adam points to Christ.
It’s important to note that in typology, the types are real, historical things. They do not lose their meaning and become obliterated because of the fulfillment in Christ. Types point us to Christ and remind us of aspects of His person and work.
A typological worldview, then, see this world as certainly declaring God’s glory. But it also acknowledges that we need God’s word to give a proper interpretation of the “facts.” As Dreher puts it, in a Reformational view, the meaning of life is “accessible to humans by faith in [God] and His revelation of alone” (28). So although a “table” may remind us of the Lord’s table and the communion we have with Him through faith, a table is not a means of grace and way of coming to know God.
Dreher’s book is definitely worth reading. Although I have focused on some points of critique here, there is so much good in this book. In fact, one of the great positives of this book is that so many people have reacted strongly to it that it forced me to read it for myself and come to my conclusions!