Preamble to After Christendom: my reaction to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option

This started with a blog post that is way too long and has taken way too long to finish, so I’m going to start putting this out here in pieces for you to whack at.  This is just the preamble; it’s the story about why I even picked up this book in the first place.  I’ll publish my first “real” segment, which summarizes the main things that drive me nuts about this book, next. Then I have some hope that I will get the topic-by-topic stuff done before summer really gets here. Or, more realistically, before Christmas.

Here’s where I started:

Apologies from the outset that this will probably be long and, given the intense interest of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, it may repeat points that others have already beaten into the ground; I’m really writing this to help me process my complicated reactions to this book, which is definitely worth reading. I am not one who has followed Dreher through his career as a blogger and author, but not only has the concept of “The Benedict Option” caught fire among a variety of Christian thinkers, but Dreher’s careful, thoughtful and comprehensive explanation of what he means in coining the term was provocative for me, both in the areas in which I found myself in strong disagreement and in those where I found myself aligned with his views. The fact, frankly, that a book can so frequently touch both poles in my reaction continuum made it worthwhile for me; it may be that you experience the same.

[I’m a lousy editor. I enjoy writing first drafts of things, but, if you’ve read any of my stuff or worked with me, you know that once it goes from my brain to the screen, I’m pretty much ready to move on to something else. Because there is so much to cover here, I’m taking (for me) the very unusual step of not publishing it right away. That’s partly because it’s likely to be too long to capture in one sitting (It was.). In my dreams, though, I’ll actually go back through and flesh out some of what I’m about to say with book quotes and links. No promises on that part.]

I’m going to start by telling how I came to read this book, then hit on the three big problems I have with Dreher’s approach, and then react to the Benedict Option concept topic by topic as outlined in the book. One of my recurring thoughts while reading this was “How can this guy get so much right while starting from such a wrong premise?” But I get ahead of myself.

How I came to read this book at this time

As a practicing Catholic who works partially in the world of policy and politics, I had heard the term “Benedict Option” enough over the last year or so to be vaguely aware of it, and I had a (partially inaccurate) sense of what it was referring to, but I had neither the time nor the interest to prioritize reading the book. As I gradually grow in my faith, I’ve become more aware of the ways the Holy Spirit works in my life. I’ve discovered that there are times when, seemingly out of the blue, I’ll get a nudge toward something. More often, it’s a series of nudges, because I’m a little slow on the uptake, especially when I’m busy focusing on something else. And so it was with this book.

I subscribe to America, the semiweekly Jesuit magazine, and as has been true with every magazine I’ve ever subscribed to, I have trouble making time for reading it, even though I always find it worthwhile once I get to it. Last week, I was on a flight to DC for a training and brought along a couple copies to read on the plane. One of them included this review/reaction to The Benedict Option; I occasionally see books covered in America that I wouldn’t mind reading, and this was one, even though like the review’s writer, I was prepared not to like it. I wasn’t planning to buy the book though.

Having worked in the same organization for 16+ years, I’ve developed a lot of strong friendships there. While our organization is not religious by nature, and we generally don’t gravitate to discussions of faith, I’m pretty open about my faith on my personal Facebook profile, and I am connected with a lot of work colleagues there, so it’s not a big secret there that I am Catholic, and maybe more vocal about my faith (in hopefully a not-off-putting manner) than the average bear.

While in DC, one of my friends and colleagues who is remarkably thoughtful gave me two books she’d picked up at a book giveaway. One was Pope Benedict XVI’s Last Testament, which is going on the very large too-read pile. The other was The Benedict Option. Hmm.

I started reading it before I left DC and on the flight home. A couple days later, on a Wednesday, I was due to give a talk on Living Healthy (another story for another day) to a group having its retreat at St. Leo’s. I thought it was on the university campus, but it was actually in the retreat house of the adjacent abbey…a Benedictine monastery. Another nudge. I kept reading.

That Friday night I finished the book and, perhaps exemplifying much of what Dreher finds wrong with modernity, I immediately took a break to check on how my Jacksonville Jaguars were faring in the NFL draft. Upon seeing that they (seemingly) made a great pick, I went to tweet my fellow-Jaguar friend Steve (I promise this wasn’t out of any spite or malice toward Dreher’s concept, which includes a strong suggestion of unplugging from technology; it was just a reflection of my mundane life). When I opened Twitter, what came up in the center of my feed…was this New Yorker story about Dreher and The Benedict Option (OK, I’ve typed those words enough now. From here out, BenOp refers to the concept and TBO refers to the book). It was a good read that gave me some valuable context about Dreher and what might be driving him personally, both in general and in the whole BenOp movement.

One last Spirit-led nudge. By the time I reached the end of the book, I was pretty well set on wanting to blog my reaction, and I had the basic themes formed for the next section of this interminable piece (assuming we ever get there). But the concluding chapter’s first paragraph was kind of a Spiritual bow on the package.

On a cold January night, I sat with Pastor Greg Thompson in a cozy Virginia pub, sipping from a steaming cup of hot toddy, talking with him about the Benedict Option. Thompson, at the time the senior pastor of a Charlottesville Presbyterian congregation, is cautious about the movement, out of concern that American Christians will be drawn to it out of fear. Though fear in the face of these turbulent times is understandable, Thompson said, the Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love. “The moment of the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine,” he said. “It can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.” (P. 237, emphasis mine)

You might know that the other blog I write way too infrequently is part of the Love Not Fear Movement, which thankfully has a little more going for it than the WordPress blog. So the fact that the conclusion of this book starts with the Love Not Fear theme that has been driving a lot of my thoughts and actions over the last year was icing on the proverbial cake.

1200 words and I haven’t said anything about the book itself or BenOps as a concept. I am so so sorry.

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