Simon's Reviews > The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
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did not like it

In the interests of transparency: I was a Benedictine monk for nearly four years, have spent my working life (43 years) at the college run by the Benedictine monks of my former abbey. So I have some experience in living as part of an intentional community, and not only as a monk. The ethos of Benedict is supposed to permeate our larger academic community, as well as have an impact upon the surrounding area (which it does, and has done since the abbey's inception in 1876, both with the Catholic population and those of different allegiances). I also trained in medieval history.

So. Why the lack of love for Dreher's book?

Part of it stems from the race through western history that opens The Benedict Option, nearly all of which he gets wrong. This section was unnecessary if one assumes, as many do, that historical context is irrelevant in the examination of "great" books and ideas. But Dreher simplifies everything into a sort of "How the Monks Saved Civilization" narrative that ignores a great deal of factual evidence dealing with "How the Monks Opposed the Institutional Church" or "How the Intentional Mission of the Monasteries May Have Departed From Benedict's Intentional Mission Pretty Damned Quickly". Moreover, he is so concerned with the idea that the West is collapsing that he romanticizes the period before the Reformation/Enlightenment/Industrial Revolution out of all recognition for anyone with even a working knowledge of it. And that's the problem. His historical analysis is an echo chamber of thesis, so it comes as no surprise that Dreher looks at the monastic withdrawal from the world that St. Benedict proposed as a workable solution for the laity.

Except it really isn't. Even Benedict --- assuming he actually existed as the man described in Gregory's Dialogues --- did not see the monastic vocation as something possessed by every Christian as a tangible mode of living. Aspirationally? Yes. The goal of the monk is union with Christ through the humility practiced by obedience to the Abbot and his fellows. The goal of all Christian life is union with Christ, so no problem so far. But Benedict has nothing to say about the marital vocation (where are all the next group of monks coming from, after all?), which also requires humility and intentional living. So does the single vocation. Which is all well and good, but how exactly does Dreher propose married Catholics live? Here's where the book falls apart.

He instances Hyattsville, Maryland, where a group of conservative Catholic families took over a failing Catholic school, transformed it with a curriculum that spoke to their needs, and then had several other families move in until hey, presto! an intentional Catholic community formed. But the obvious flaws of 21st century life remain: unless they are willing to go to jail to make their point --- and don't laugh, Daniel Berrigan and Dorothy Day were --- they still pay taxes to a government that legally allows things that directly contradict the teachings of the Church, no? Is withdrawal from the larger American polis to mean that the Benedict Option Catholic ceases to vote? Never mind the fact that 52% of us voted for Donald Trump (which I suppose means 48% voted for Hillary Clinton or the truly execrable Jill Stein, neither of whom represented anything like orthodox Catholic concerns), surely a withdrawal from the intentional American community means that the worst will be empowered? And how are the members of Benedict Option communities to feed their families? Writing a blog and publishing books like this is a nice solution for those as can, but what about the auto worker? Or the migrant? I am a little old to do anything but teach and direct plays, and I have no capacity for homespun crafts at all. Should I keep my day job and live in an intentional community by night?

The solution is so obvious that only Dreher --- who is surprised that his sister had a support system in place during her final illness, and why wouldn't she? She was not a gyrovague, a word Mr. Dreher's personal journey illustrates beautifully --- can miss it.

Live intentionally. There. Easy-peasy.

Except it isn't, as Catholics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and probably even ethical atheists can testify. But it is our common vocation not only as believers, but if we are members of any community, even one as small as our nuclear families. So the end product of the book is the end product of Benedict's Rule. Live as though you are a Christian. Forget the Rule. Try the New Testament.

I have only read this book by Dreher, and many people I respect like his stuff quite a bit. But the whole "siege mentality" evinced by his particular brand of orthodoxy is getting tiresome. We are not put on the Earth to ride anything out, Rod, so eat something sweet, feel better, and get back to work. Feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, shelter the homeless, you know the rest of the drill. And yes, Mary chose the better part. But Martha didn't get kicked out of the house.

Not recommended for his understanding of Benedict or history. Ok as a ferverino, but you would do better with The Imitation of Christ.
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Reading Progress

May 11, 2017 – Shelved
Started Reading
May 13, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-32 of 32 (32 new)

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message 1: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Thank you for this thoughtful review.


message 2: by Glenn (last edited Jun 02, 2017 07:23AM) (new)

Glenn Russell Thanks for this, Simon!

I was a Benedictine monk for nearly four years, have spent my working life (43 years) at the college run by the Benedictine monks of my former abbey. ----------- That's wonderful you had experience as a Benedictine monk. One of my outstanding teachers from the Great Courses, Prof. Luke Johnson, also spent years as a Benedictine monk.


message 3: by David (new)

David Gustafson When I lived in Vermont, several of us would travel to the abbey at Benoit du Lac in Quebec for a little R&R from the extraneous noise of the everyday world. It was a great place to read and write and the Gregorian chant was a soothing massage for the soul. We would arrive on a Friday, but by Sunday, I was always eager to return home after Mass. The experience was too much of a good thing. I guess I am little more than a three-day monk. The monks themselves radiated an aura of serenity. Some of them looked to be at least 120 or 130- years-old, but of course, we could not start a conversation. We looked at them and they occasionally peeked at us.


message 4: by Leigh (new)

Leigh yes, thank you


message 5: by Pastor (new)

Pastor Shannon Thank you for this review. It confirmed my hunch about it. Living in monastic or intentional community takes a lot of evangelical or gospel centered humility. The whole idea of hospitality is squelched by a siege mentality.


message 6: by Josh (new) - rated it 1 star

Josh Thank you for this well thought out review. As I read this book I could see the extreme desire to over fantasize the past though a narrow perspective which was used to frame the authors already derived conclusion.


Barbra Ann I'm currently reading, but note: this is definitely NOT a 'radical new' thing -- elements in the Roman Catholic Church have never relinquished their spirituality to political parish life. There has ALWAYS been strong spiritual connection to the earliest Christian communities and there will always be. It's just not universally-adhered to. ~ Barbara, supporter of Madonna House, Combermere Ontario and occasional visitor to Abbey of the Genesee Piffard NY


message 8: by Rob (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rob Henderson I think it is important to life the Scriptures in an ongoing conversion and being with Jesus.


Missy Great review, thank you! I was disappointed by The Benedict Option, as well. I will say that I liked The Marian Option much better, though I take issue with some of the author's generalizations about Muslims. Still, I recommend the book and would love to hear your thoughts if you get around to reading it.


message 10: by Eric (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric Thanks for the thought-provoking review. Dreher's work does seem to fulfill an intention to motivate, and he had me on the hook to somewhere around the midpoint; then I started wondering when he would really make his case - which he did not. As I reflect over what he has written I wonder if he may have perhaps elevated the ideal of Benedict without much thought of introducing Benedict to today. So, 'Imitation of Christ," eh?


message 11: by Shirley (new) - added it

Shirley this review captures my feelings well. also just to reiterate that Dreher tramples history (covers all of the 13th-20th centuries in one reductive and problematic chapter, UGH), and to add that he doesn't at all do justice to Alasdair Macintyre's book After Virtue, which tho published a few decades back quite incisively diagnoses the moral failings of modernity--far better than Dreher. super frustrated with this book.


message 12: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 13: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 14: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 15: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 16: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 17: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 18: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 19: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 20: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 21: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 22: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 23: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 24: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 25: by Carisa (new) - added it

Carisa Ash Yes, thanks for this honest review. Your expertise is appreciated!


message 26: by Tom LA (new)

Tom LA Great review. I’ve read something else by this author and watched his videos on YouTube. Aside from a very self-centered personality, what I found was exactly that type of superficiality and tendency to jump to conclusions that you reference above.


message 27: by Cheryl Anne (new)

Cheryl Anne Thoughtful review. Thank you. Have to say, I find the listing in the comment near the end interesting: "Except it isn't, as Catholics, Christians..."


message 28: by Soul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Soul I enjoyed your review much more than the book itself !


message 29: by Debra (new)

Debra Thanks for your review. Can you recommend a good book about Benedict's life that I can read to my 12 year old? We just read about him in the book Peace and Peril, but I would like more. Thanks.


message 30: by Simon (new) - rated it 1 star

Simon St. Gregory's Dialogues, which contains the earliest life. It isn't a biography, but a work of hagiography. So you'll have to explain more the why of what Gregory means to stress about Benedict's teachings than the usual meaning of biography in the modern sense, but I think 1) it is essential as a starting place and 2) gives the reader a decent introduction into what those chronologically the closest to Benedict understood his version of monastic life to be about. In addition, it has the advantage of being eminently suitable for reading aloud, and is broken up into reasonably bite-size chapters. Hope he enjoys it, and what a great Mom you are to read like this with your kid. My own mother, who passed away three weeks ago at 90, did this for me and sparked a lifelong love of reading.


message 31: by Debra (new)

Debra Simon wrote: "St. Gregory's Dialogues, which contains the earliest life. It isn't a biography, but a work of hagiography. So you'll have to explain more the why of what Gregory means to stress about Benedict's t..."
Thank you. And I'm so sorry for your loss.


message 32: by Simon (new) - rated it 1 star

Simon Thank you. She was 90, and had lived a rich, full life. But I am still going to miss her. Twice today I have though "Mom would enjoy this book." Drat.


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