I went from BenOp skeptic to strong advocate... and here’s why.
I went from a BenOp skeptic to a strong advocate, once I understood the original guidebook written by Benedict himself. By seeing better what it shows us, we can understand not only why the Benedict Option is a good strategy, but even more importantly, practical wisdom on how to live it out well.
And so I’ve put together this new book to help share with the world what I’ve found in Benedict‘s own original guidebook.
Ok, so if you run in certain circles, you’ve no doubt heard about the Benedict Option (BenOp, for short), and you know, people tend to love it or hate it (and lots of folks mostly love to hate it). So did I—both love it and hate it, that is—and, like most critics of Rod Dreher’s idea, I had never actually read his book on it… nor ever bothered to find out what he had said about the idea during the last number of years of talking about it prior to even writing the book.
I had my definite opinions on the matter, like all anti-BenOp critics I loved to posit my own pet theory alternative to it (a simple google search reveals all manner of things from “the Mary Option” to “the Beer Option”). Mine was “the Farmer Giles Option”, which it turns out in the end to boil down to essentially what Dreher originally had in mind (with a slight shift of emphasis) when he came up with the BenOp.
Everybody knows (and if you know me, you know I am at times—very occasionally—given to hyperbole) that Rod Dreher’s inspiration for the idea came from the end of the last chapter in Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, where he says that society is “waiting, not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” And people like to pick on Dreher, saying that he is radically misinterpreting MacIntyre, etc. etc. The thing is… the real key to understanding the BenOp lies earlier in the paragraph when MacIntyre talks about just what the original Benedict of the 6th century did, and what this “new” Benedict-like path for society should look like (its uncanny, actually, how MacIntyre almost uses the term “Benedict option” here himself), namely “What [Benedict and his monks] set themselves to achieve... was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”
Now, I happen to specialize academically in both virtue psychology and monastic spirituality, and as an anthropologist-psychologist I can tell you that MacIntyre is spot-on with what he says we need today—tangible living communities in which to become embedded (to learn more what that means, go ahead and read MacIntyre’s book). And even though I knew this all in the abstract, in day to day life I still in practice made like we could make it on our own in the midst of the modern industrial-urban landscape. Over time, however, we realized that we could not survive in a world like that and keep our sanity intact.
Now, I know many people who’ve opted then to retreat into isolated life on a self-sufficient homestead in the countryside—heck, we ended up by circumstance having to live that way for a time too—but let me tell you, the fact is human beings were not made for isolation, and no nuclear family unit was ever meant to be self-sufficient, expected to provide for all their own needs. It’s absurd to think so. Human beings are made for community, something on the scale of a village perhaps, but community nonetheless, centered on common pattern of life with others. Neither the urban-industrial complex, nor the isolated little-house-on-the-prairie homestead is a healthy habitat for human beings. In either environment, the sole nuclear family unit standing against the storm will simply be snuffed out. It’s human nature. We are made for more.
The problem is, at the most basic level, one of a return to human-scale. Only then will life actually begin to become more livable. And that’s not even touching on the religious dimension of things. Or maybe it is; you see, true Christian living—genuine Christian culture—in practice is all about (and historically thrives best when it embodies) small-scale, relationship-based local economies centered both on communal liturgies of divine worship on the one hand and incarnating that divinity through the daily life of humanity on the other. And guess what: turns out that’s what Benedict’s original option was (in fact, prior to what Charles Taylor calls this “Secular Age”, it was in fact the only real way of life for any given Christian too), and so once I started to work that all out, I thought it just might be worth taking a look at what Rod Dreher actually had to say about the so-called Benedict Option. Here’s what I found: “The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents… and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.” …Well then, no wonder the BenOp gets misunderstood and misconstrued. It’s not just the fact that people love to hate on political pundits (Dreher isa big deal over at a blog called The American Conservative, for crying out loud), but it’s because the Benedict Option flies in the face of all commercialized, mainstream modern sensibilities say about what you should do as a citizen of modern progressive society (but hey! So does the entire Gospel! Sermon on the Mount, anyone?).
And this isn’t all theoretical either. Do you realize how much our ways of living and even how we think is being shaped (ahem… nudged..) by the structures and routines of secular modernity we’re embedded in?? Now amplify that 100x for how that impacts the development of our children. There is nothing more practical than taking an inventory of how mainstream life in the MSW (Modern Secular West, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing…)is shaping your heart and the hearts and minds of your children. But lest you be tempted to think the only solution is to go on some isolationist self-sufficiency kick, think again about instead of just leaving orbit, you enter into a different orbit altogether—a healthier, saner orbit. Can you imagine even, for instance, the immense burden that is lifted by being able to live in a local community whose pattern of life and routines actually freed you, instead of inhibiting (or outright prohibiting) you, to live a life in Christ?
Having launched through some major life transitions over the last few years as my family and I seek for genuine freedom to worship God and follow where he is leading us, I have a new appreciation for the BenOp—for what it actually is, and not what many think it to be—now that I’ve actually talked with Rod and others about it, and actually seen what Rod had to say about it. Maybe I come from the privileged position of having studied St. Benedict and his Rule for the over a quarter century now, that allows me to see something that might otherwise be easy to overlook. That’s why I thought it worthwhile to revisit the original idea that Benedict himself had—that 1,500+ year old(!!) strategy for Christians living in the midst of a non-Christian world—and to make available to everyone a more accessible version of Benedict’s own vision for the original Benedict Option and his guide for putting it into practice.
So before you write this off, come along with me and let’s take an honest look at what the Benedict Option is actually about (hint: it’s not about “circling the wagons” or fleeing persecution), and see if together you and I can maybe even improve on it by looking at the Original Guide (the OG, if you will) to the Benedict Option, namely, St. Benedict himself and what he has to tell us.
So have a look. I think you'll appreciate what you find: The Original Benedict Option Guidebook: Benedict of Nursia’s Own Rules for Living Christian Community in a Post-Christian Society