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Book Review: The Benedict Option

Book Review: The Benedict Option

There should be a disclaimer here, some kind of spoiler alert, an announcement about my Lutheran biases. I went into the book in a curmudgeonly frame of mind, expecting to hate it, and finished it a couple weeks later actually crying because I felt so burdened by the law. I don't like the book, for different reasons than expected, but I will also plan on revisiting in 5-10 years to see how my perspective has changed.

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It's still fresh in my mind, so I'm going to try and frame some of my major objections.

  • I know nothing about Eastern Orthodox (hereafter abbreviated as EO) eschatology, however, the concept that we need to completely redeem the world before Christ's return is found in many denominations, and I'm not buying that. #datpostmil (Am I doing this right?)
  • Single people are SCREWED. There's about two half pages in the entire book devoted to what you should do if you're A. not in a nuclear family and B. also not in holy orders, and that's basically 1. become part of a nuclear family or 2. get thee to the monastery/convent. DON'T TEMPT ME. More on that later.
  • This book outright says that the best place you can be on earth is living within a physically Christian community (have your church buy land! You can all have a plot!) and that once there, you should be patronizing the businesses of your church's members. Got it. Okay. Definitely not a cult, nothing to see here. Don't even get me started on why I should try and find a Christian mechanic to replace the Christian tires on my Christian car so I can drive more safely on the Christian roads. I wrote about this earlier in the year, in response to a TGC piece that had a similar concept. I thought we were supposed to, you know, be a witness where we were already, where God presumably placed us. Do we have freedom to move, to change jobs, schools, certain relationships? Yes. Should we necessarily? He thinks so. I don't, necessarily. Perhaps this is a difference in our understanding of how we interpret God's will.
  • If your church isn't giving you what you need, just start your own Benedict Option chapter (?!) (I have a knee-jerk reaction to this kind of talk. Do some research. Find a church that DOES give you what you need. It exists. Don't just start your own stuff, people.)
  • The book's accurately high view of homeschooling, cooperative/classical schooling, or private Christian school is nice, but where does this leave parents who are poor, or single parents who don't have the luxury of these options? "It's a sacrifice", the book says. Implying that if you're not willing or able to make the sacrifice, you must just not care enough about your kids.
  • "All work is sacramental if you're doing it right" = rather a sad view of the actual sacraments. I think this viewpoint can only lead to works-righteousness. If everything is a sacrament, nothing is a sacrament, and how do you know where it stops? Dreher has a tiny glimpse of the Lutheran view of vocation (which, interestingly, he credits to someone else, in the early 1600s), and it's just enough to be burdensome. What happens when, as a sinful human in a broken world, your work.... doesn't get done right? Wouldn't God be then displeased with your offering? Wait.... wouldn't this lead to a gradual negation of the work Jesus did on the cross? SEND HELP!!!!! I have fallen into a theological wormhole and can't get up!
  • Throughout the book, there is a subtle flirtation with the concept that your other vocations are just sort of second-best to being a monk or a nun. I get it: I frequently yearn to ditch my problems (men! family! mortgage! technology!) and retreat to the relative peace of a nunnery, where I envision myself with no possessions, making jam and beer, and getting to tell people they can't talk to me because I'm in a vow of silence. I imagine that Dreher, as the parent of teenagers, feels somewhat the same way: it looks romantic. Sorry, but no: God gives us these responsibilities, families, jobs, relationships, churches. We cannot abdicate them, no matter how appealing it is. Where ever you go, there you are, with your sin nature. In his version of these monasteries, the monks are apparently completely sanctified! How wonderful for them. If the author really wants to reinvent this particular wheel, I can suggest the Book of Concord, which I have found very helpful. I thought the EO had, you know, a more orthodox view of original sin. 
  • The author is super stoked about raising up another Benedict. Silly me: I thought God did the raising. Us going about any endeavor thinking "IMMA BE THE NEXT BENEDICT" surely has failure written all over it, right?
  • Getting married and having a family = great if that is what God gives you. God has not given me this. A focus on reforming the church/society/earth by means of the nuclear family leaves people like me (not to mention Christians battling same sex attraction, who get about one half-page) out in the cold, and this is part of why I found myself crying on the porch as I finished the book: sacrifice is not exclusively going against the stream by way of marriage and childbearing/rearing. Sacrifice of self for Christ can look like a myriad of other things, and I wish more of them were discussed in this book.

Things the book got right:

  • We should be more ecumenically minded. I realize there are barriers to complete, full fellowship while we are still on earth. I get that different denominations exist for good reasons. But where we can in good conscience enjoy Christ with our fellow Christians, we ought absolutely to do so. Where there is something good in another denomination, we can acknowledge that with thanksgiving, and give glory to God for it. (I might not go so far as to praise the Mormons for their kind of creepy ways of checking in on one another - sounds invasive...)
  • Our lives as Christians ought to be markedly different, with particular concentration on the areas of hospitality and education.
  • Surrounding yourself with people who believe and strive for the same things makes your life, well, not exactly easier, but more sustainable. Common goals matter. 
  • If you do not have a strong, orthodox faith yourself, don't expect your kids to. 
  • Unless unable to do so for medical reasons, you should probably be fasting on a regular basis. 
  • We need better Christian communities and we need to invest more of our energy in them.
  • We are surrounded by a dark and hostile world, and the best defense is seeking the things of Christ. Ultimately, the author and I disagree somewhat about what that looks like in practice. 

I read this book because it has brought up a number of conversations and questions within my circle, and I wanted to give it a fair assessment before joining those conversations. It has certainly been thought-provoking, if also saddening. May the Lord have mercy on us all. 

Okay! If anyone needs me I'll be on Facebook playing ConventVille! 

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