Off the Shelf – The Benedict Option

By Fr. Jerry Markopoulos

I first heard of this book listening to Hank Hannagraff’s podcast, “Hank Unplugged.” The title of the episode was “The Most Interesting Man in the World–A conversation with Rod Dreher,” which immediately caught my attention.

The first thing I noticed in the interview is that Mr. Dreher is very “quotable.” Many of the things he said resonated with me personally and stuck in my head. I struggle as an Orthodox Christian living in a post-Christian world, a world in which the forces of dissolution from popular culture are too great for me to resist on my own. I often struggle with how to approach politics, church, family, community, education, sexuality, and technology–all aspects of daily life addressed in the book. I am one of those who Dreher points out is “going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that I live in a culture wherein my beliefs make increasingly little sense. That it seems like I speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.”  Naturally, when I heard someone offering a strategy for Christians living in these trying times, I decided to purchase and read the book.

The Benedict Option draws on the virtues in the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia to find guidance for how today’s Christians can approach politics, church, family, community, education, work, sexuality and technology. St. Benedict was born in the small village of Nursia, a mountainous region in central Italy. He was raised by pious Christian parents who around the year 500, sent him to Rome to complete his education. When Benedict arrived in Rome he was shocked by the moral chaos, the immorality, and the dissolution following Rome’s fall. In response, he retreated to a cave in the forest outside of Rome, for three years, praying, fasting, and seeking God’s will. When he re-emerged from this period of intense asceticism, he felt called to establish communities based on principles of order, hospitality, stability and prayer. He wrote the Rule of St. Benedict, a small book describing how they should live together in community. He died in the year 547 AD having established thirteen monasteries.

In a very dark time, St. Benedict’s monasteries served as spiritual centers of hope and light. God used St. Benedict’s mustard seed of faith to establish monasteries devoted to asceticism. But the monasteries also had as their mission to evangelize people, to teach them how to read and pray (education as Christian Formation), and how to garden (be self-supporting). St. Benedict’s monasteries kept faith and learning alive during a difficult time in history. It is the Dreher’s conviction that St. Benedict, and these communities he created, not only saved Christianity in the West, but also laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilization in the West.

The book has two parts. The first part defines the challenges of post-Christian America and explores the philosophical and theological roots of our society’s fragmentation. The second part discusses how Christians can live today and provides insights in how Christians should approach politics, faith, family, community, education, and work. It stresses the importance of believers thinking and acting radically in the face of the two most powerful phenomena directing contemporary life: sex and technology. Dreher stresses that now is a time of decision and decisiveness. What he strives to offer in The Benedict Option is a proven strategy that draws on the authority of scripture and the collective wisdom of the ancient church, to embrace “exile in place” and form a vibrant counterculture. Rather than panicking or remaining complacent, Christians need to realize that the “New Order” is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be lived with.

You may wonder, from what I’ve written so far, how this book relates to Missions & Evangelism Ministry. Let me offer the connection. St. Benedict began by asking himself, “How do I find God in the ruins of Rome?” He concluded that it was by living an ordered life centered on Christ, and by engaging in practices that deepen his conversion. His effort was to regain the right relationship to the truth of things. To live as the Body of Christ; a true community united in Christ with each person committed in love to doing their part to strengthen the whole. To become a community where members truly live a Christian way of life, and in turn, that community stands as an island of sanctity and stability, authority and authenticity, amid the high-tide of liquid modernity. It seems to me that a community–and rule of living–like this would be extremely attractive to all those asking themselves, “How do I find God in the ruins of __________ (fill-in the blank)?”  I believe that The Benedict Option would especially be attractive to millennials in search of fidelity in a distinct community, a place where they are invited to be “communers” instead of “consumers.”

Dreher is quite candid, and there are parts of the book that could be seen as controversial. At its core, however, is the ideal of becoming a true community, and personally I find that irresistible.

The Benedict Option-A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher. Sentinel Press. 272 pages.

Fr. Jerry Markopoulos serves St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Eugene, Oregon, as well as overseeing mission parishes in Salem, Oregon and Roseburg, Oregon.