A few months ago, I started reading The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher, which I reviewed on EatReadSleep here. The book was complex and controversial, yet it dealt with so many of the issues that had been on my mind lately that I wanted to discuss it with a group. Three other women agreed to join me for book discussions, and we’ve met on the porch a couple of times and have had rich discussions on the first four chapters. Last week, we hashed out the politics chapter during a thunderstorm, which is somehow apt. I look forward to our next meeting, in which we will consider the church and community. Here are some notes that might give you a flavor of our conversations.
Who Are We?
We are four women who share a common love for Jesus, but are very different in other ways. Our age span is about twenty-five years from youngest to oldest, although I have not made close inquiries on this question. We are or have been teachers, librarians, homeschooling moms, military officers, and successful entrepreneurs, among other vocations. Our religious backgrounds include Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, charismatic nondenominational, Calvary Chapel, Lutheran, military chapel, and all of the alphabet soup Presbyterian sects. There are probably more, but suffice it to say, we’re diverse in that respect. We all like to talk, so we have really good discussions, and our copies of the book are full of underlinings and margin notes. One of us bought the ebook first in order to get it quickly, and then bought the paper book just to mark it up.
Why This Book?
Alert readers may have noticed that things are a mess in this country these days. I’m sure that I am not the only Christian who was quite shocked at the behavior of the church during the election season last year, and considering that I was still reeling from some experiences with the church in my own life at the time, this public disgrace really hit me hard. Suddenly, I went from trying to sort out my own beliefs and the local, small “c” church, but now I had to worry about the entire, big “C” Church, as well. This process has been truly beneficial in the long run, since it has given me a firm foundation to weather a new and even more stunning small “c” church upheaval. Human beings never cease to disappoint us, but God is trustworthy and unchanging.
Rod Dreher has chosen to use Saint Benedict, a monk in the sixth century who founded the Benedictine monastic order, as a model for how Christians should conduct themselves in our post-Christian times. Yes, I thought, that’s what we need. We can all draw into monasteries, shut out the world, and only deal with people who agree with us on everything. Furthermore, they are often under vows of silence, which would be difficult for me to carry out, but would be so awesome for everyone around me. I’m assuming that that includes no texting, Tweeting, writing blog posts, and posting on Facebook or other social media. Not that I couldn’t argue with myself in my own head, but at least I wouldn’t be tempted to argue with other people, and then replay my own intemperate remarks mentally for days on end. Think of the benefits to my blood pressure.
Alas, that is not what Dreher is proposing. Rather, he lays out the Benedict Rule, which is the set of rules that the monks agree to obey, as a way of ordering and strengthening our own lives and the structures in which we live: our families, churches, and communities. Just as the monks preserved and built up the church during the many centuries of the Dark Ages, Dreher proposes that the values of the Benedict Rule can do the same in our day. The rules are very simple, such as prayer, work, asceticism, community, and hospitality. Yes, hospitality, because Dreher does not want us to leave our culture altogether, but rather to “embrace exile in place” and form a “vibrant counterculture.” (p. 18)
So, the work begins in our own hearts, and our group has had deep conversations on how to pray and what was preventing us from ordering our lives correctly. Some of us get up punishingly early (Can you tell I’m not one of them?) to read the Bible and pray while it is still dark. We all agreed that we need to spend more time listening and being with the Lord, rather than just doing perfunctory Bible reading and reciting a list of petitions. We discussed lectio divina, a practice that is considered controversial in some circles, yet recommended highly by Dreher and his monk friends. I had a long chat with a co-worker about lectio divina, and he lent me the book Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, by Enzo Bianchi, which I shared with the group and later purchased. It is written in a very Catholic style, but it is thorough and wondrously short: 118 pages, and a lot of them are notes. Our group considered the distractions in our lives that might be keeping us from spiritual order, and there were many, but all agreed that television and smart phones were two of the worst.
The political discussion is based on Dreher’s assertion that “the culture war as we know it is over” (p. 79), and that Christians should establish and build parallel structures within their own communities instead. He believes that unless Christians are called to work within the government as a vocation, the church should only fight for religious freedom on a federal level. From my perspective, it will be frustratingly difficult to convince the American church that they are completely wrong-headed in their idea that this is their country, and that they are part of a silent majority. This is not true, and it has never been true, although patriotic virtue—which often masquerades as religious faith— was certainly more widespread and encouraged a few decades ago than it is now. I grew up as a Roman Catholic and attended Catholic schools (a parallel structure) almost all of my life. Although they make up almost a quarter of the population, Catholics have always had an understanding of their identity as outsiders in what was a WASPy culture during the waves of Catholic immigration a century or so ago. After I became a Protestant, I was surprised by their assumption that they owned the culture, and convincing them that devout Christians are now a despised minority—and not just in the news media— may take some time, particularly for those who socialize only within their own circle of Christian friends.
Dreher uses an extended example of the Czech resistance to the Communist party in the twentieth century and their devotion to preserving their religious faith in the face of a harsh secular government determined to crush them. They knew that they might never live to see the results of their labor, but they were willing to wage a generational struggle so that their grandchildren might once again be able to practice their religion openly and freely. In a similar way, we need to be committed to resistance in our times. Not the so-called resistance of those who already own the government, the media, and academia, but the true resistance of a despised minority, facing the oppression of those in power with an example of a loving community, living separately but not in a ghetto, open to any who wish to join.
Are we willing to withdraw from the mainstream? Dreher gives a list of ways to do just that, and, interestingly, many of them are also found in secular books on mindfulness. It’s not just about giving up things in our lives, but also about good things to put in their place. It is so offensive in our world to hold strong religious views without wearing signaling costumes like the Amish or Orthodox Jews. If we wore a hijab, like Muslim women, the world could see us coming and adjust their expectations accordingly. Finding out that your conversational partner is religious when they look just like regular people is so annoying. Dreher encourages us to leave our secular culture even more pointedly, insisting that neither political party is fully consistent with Christian truth. (p. 96) Let us concentrate instead on “the everyday, thankless, and never-ending struggle of human beings to live more freely, truthfully, and in quiet dignity.” (p. 97)
Next time, we will talk about the church and, hopefully, community. That should be lively. The members of our group have made some changes in our personal and spiritual lives, but we have not yet decided on concrete steps for public issues. I may have an update on that later. I encourage you to read The Benedict Option for yourself, and even to gather your own group for discussion. None of us agree with everything Dreher proposes, and I have a feeling that there will be a good bit of debate in the chapter about church, but it is very beneficial for believers to get these topics out in the open and to make some conclusions about the direction of the Christian community as a whole. As a matter of fact, the only way forward is together. Join the discussion!