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 6th 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, Dreher 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.”
The book is 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.
Like any perceptive Christian, Dreher recognizes there is nothing new under the sun. To make sense of the present, we look to the past. Some Christians see the church in Acts as our best precedent. Others cite Augustine or Aquinas. Dreher sees us living in a new Dark Ages, similar to when Benedict formed his monasteries in the 500s.
I think there is a better precedent. The situation in the first century—as well as in Augustine, Benedict, and Aquinas’ day—was not the fault of the faith community. The Babylonian exile was. It was the result of idolatry. Dreher says today’s church idolizes the Enlightenment. I think he’s right. Rather than our precedent being the Dark Ages, I think it’s the Babylonian exile. We ought to pursue The Babylonian 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.
I think Michael Wear would like The Babylonian Option. Wear directed faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and was one of the youngest White House staffers in modern American history. He urges Christians to take seriously Jeremiah’s exhortation to the exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29. We shouldn’t “lie low,” leave our cities, flee to the suburbs, or “take a posture of opposition toward the Babylonians.” We should seek their flourishing by getting involved with them.
My sense is Dreher is a good man but is trying to solve an American Western problem using an American Western 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…”
Living in a small space—the city and church—is The Babylonian Option. It’s seeking the flourishing of all regardless of others’ faith. 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.
 Michael Wear, Reclaiming Hope: Lesson Learned in the Obama White House About The Future of Faith in America, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017), p. 208.