A just-published book by Rod Dreher, an American writer and blogger on politics and religion, began to garner an unusual level of attention even before its publication. It continues to generate vigorous responses, both pro and con. Titled “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World” (Sentinel, $25), it’s a book that I think members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might profitably read and discuss, as well.
Moreover, given our unique doctrinal perspective and history, I believe that we have something to contribute to the conversation. (So does Dreher himself: “The Latter-day Saints may not be Orthodox Christians,” he says, “but they are exceptionally good at doing the kind of community building” that he advocates.)
Dreher’s view of the current state of “Christendom,” as it was once called, is distinctly negative: “The light of Christianity,” he writes, “is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.”
“Today,” he continues, “we can see that we’ve lost on every front and that the swift and relentless currents of secularism have overwhelmed our flimsy barriers. Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians. We tell ourselves that these developments have been imposed by a liberal elite, because we find the truth intolerable: The American people, either actively or passively, approve. American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.”
But Dreher’s book isn’t solely or even largely a lament about the decline of Western civilization. (Some critics think his pessimism exaggerated, which would, itself, be a good discussion topic.) Mostly, it’s a set of recommendations and exhortations to Christians concerning how to act and respond in a culture that no longer supports much of Christian morality, let alone Christian belief.
“Could it be,” he asks, “that the best way to fight the flood is to stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.”
Dreher derives the title of his book not from the recent Pope Benedict XVI, whom he admires, but from the sixth-century St. Benedict of Nursia, who founded about a dozen monastic communities and authored the famous Benedictine “Rule” for monks. Because of his pivotal role in Europe’s emergence from the so-called “Dark Ages” that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, Benedict is considered the continent’s “patron saint.” The choice of Benedict’s name already suggests something of Dreher’s overall advice for Christians, which involves a combination of withdrawal, sinking deeper roots, and re-engagement.
Mormons, who don’t particularly share Dreher’s passionate admiration of monasteries and convents, may think that such advice has little relevance to them. However, in our doctrine of “gathering” and our simultaneous commitment to preaching the gospel, as well as in our focus on local ward and branch communities and on covenants made in very private sacred places and our doctrine of being “in the world but not of the world,” we too believe in a religious practice that combines withdrawal and sinking deep personal and communal roots with lives completely engaged in the world around us.
When Dreher says that, “if believers don’t come out of Babylon and be separate, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally, their faith will not survive for another generation or two in this culture of death,” he’s speaking our language.
I found every page of “The Benedict Option” stimulating even when I disagreed, and I strongly recommend it to my fellow Latter-day Saints for discussion.