In a post-Christian nation, Rod Dreher believes The Benedictine Option is the best way forward. I like much of what he says but The Babylonian Option might be better.
Dreher is known for 2011 book, “Crunchy Cons,” about how conservatives like him—“Birkenstocked Burkeans”—and “hip homeschooling mamas” might change America. He feels differently today. Dreher’s moved on to Benedict of Nursia.
Benedict was the sixth-century monk who was convinced that it was impossible to live virtuously in a fallen Roman Empire. He founded a monastery where the flame of Christianity might be tended during the Dark Ages. Dreher believes we’re living in a new Dark Ages. This March, his book was published: “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” David Brooks called “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”
It’s worth reading. Dreher believes the Enlightenment has created a society that Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity.” Life is fluid and changing so rapidly “that no social institutions have time to solidify.” This includes the church, which Dreher sees as capitulating to liquid culture—shallow, consumerist, and individualist.
Dreher believes liquid modernity is a more or less unstoppable force—in part because capitalism and technology are unstoppable. He advocates for some radical solutions. Christians ought to remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should admit that the culture wars have been lost. They should live locally. Rather than drive long distances every Sunday to church, they should move to within walking distance of their church. Christians should turn inward, toward Benedictine monasticism.
Credit Dreher for trying to make sense of the times in which we live. He recognizes there is nothing new under the sun, so he looks to the past to make sense of the present. Thoughtful Christians do this. Some look to the early church, the church in Augustine’s day, and so on. Dreher’s precedent is Benedict’s monasteries.
I think there’s a better precedent: the Babylonian exile. It came as a result of 500 years of idolatry by the nation of Judah. The Western church has idolized Enlightenment thinking for about that length of time. The parallels are there, which makes me imagine the Babylonian exile as the better precedent. The Babylonian Option is a better option.
The Babylonian Option is not moving out of town into Christian cul-de-sacs. It is moving into town, into the heart of the city, and seeking the common good (Jer. 29:7). This is what the sons of Judah did in the Babylonian exile. They didn’t retreat to religious huddles. They learned the language and literature of Babylon (Daniel 1) so they could translate the gospel into the vernacular of the Babylonians and solve Babylonian problems. This is far messier than the monastic approach. And harder.
But not impossible. In his 2013 Erasmus Lecture, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said America’s renewal depends on the creative minority. He said the sons of Judah were history’s first creative minority. They’re an exemplar for how “it is possible to survive in exile with your identity intact, your appetite for life undiminished, while contributing to the wider society and praying to God on its behalf.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) seems to agree. In 2004, he said Europe’s renewal depended on the creative minority. These respected voices make a case for The Babylonian Option.
My sense is Dreher is trying to solve American problem using an American mindset. Mattia Ferraresi, the New York correspondent for Il Foglio, thinks Dreher’s idea of a “community” separated from a city is very American. It’s foreign to Italians. “For us, it’s about blending and layering in a small space—the Romans, the Church…”
The Babylonian Option is blending and layering in a small space—the city and church. It’s seeking the flourishing of all. John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, calls this confident pluralism, that the gospel can make a difference, even in a post-Christian nation. We can learn a common language so that we seek the common good. That’s why I appreciate Dreher’s calling out our idolatry but feel The Babylonian Option is the better way forward.