Rod Dreher explains the 'Benedict Option'
Q&A | The popular conservative commentator lays out a new way for Christians to interact with the culture
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 6/03/15, 01:35 pm
Rod Dreher has helped define the terms of the cultural conversation from his perch as senior editor of The American Conservative. His columns are widely read and quoted by those on both the left and the right. He’s perhaps best known, though, for a personal memoir called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming about the life and death of his sister. The book became a bestseller and spawned a sequel of sorts called How Dante Can Save Your Life. We recently had this conversation in Washington, D.C.
I want to talk specifically about this cultural moment. Surveys show the United States is becoming more pro-life, while at the same time, on the issue of same-sex marriage we’re moving in the opposite direction. You’ve jumped into the fray with what you’ve called the "Benedict Option." Would you say a few words about that? A few years ago I read a book called After Virtue by a philosopher named Alasdair MacIntyre. It came out in the ’80s. He ends it by saying that we are in a moment now in the West that’s akin to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, when everything went into chaos. He said Saint Benedict of Nursia left the chaos of Rome, went into the woods to pray. Without knowing what he was doing, he founded a community of men dedicated to prayer. This became the Benedictine order of monks, and over the next centuries they kept the faith alive throughout Europe as Europe was covered in barbarian darkness. They laid the groundwork for the rebirth of Christian society in the former Western Roman Empire.
MacIntyre says, “We’re waiting for a new and doubtless very different Saint Benedict to bring those who want to live the moral life together in community to survive through this current darkness.” I’ve been talking about this for years, but it’s starting to get real now because, with the progression of same-sex marriage and gay rights, we have seen a strong erosion of religious liberty. A lot of Christians think of this as simply a matter of law and politics. It’s not. We have lost the culture. We conservatives, we Christians, did not compete at the cultural level, so culture comes first. Politics and law follows that. …
My argument is that Christians had better prepare for this. We are fighting a losing game. The country is not ours anymore. This is not our culture anymore. Maybe it never was our real home, but we have got to prepare ourselves and our families and our churches through intentional living, through disciplined living, and through an awareness of the cultural moment to deal with perhaps even persecution.
Some people say the Benedict way means separation; it means disengagement. First of all, is that what you mean? Or do you mean prayer, and holiness, and preparing your family to live lives of prayer and holiness? We don’t have the luxury of disengagement. We’ve got to protect our institutions as best we can. What I’m trying to say, to tell Christians, is it’s not enough to be a knight. You have to be a gardener, too. In the work I’ve done in the past couple years, I’ve talked to Christian leaders in different colleges, Catholic and Protestant, and they are seeing an entire generation of young people who don’t know their faith. Even if they’ve been through church groups, it’s always been this sort of Jesus-is-my-boyfriend, youth pastor kind of stuff that’s about a quarter-inch deep.
They don’t have the strong sense of the faith, not only in terms of what they know, but in terms of the way they live, their habits. They don’t have a strong enough sense of the faith to withstand the power of this culture, and you’re starting to see it, especially in the same-sex marriage thing. When people, young people, so willingly throw over biblical morality to fit in with the culture, that tells you there’s a problem, and I’ve seen it myself in the different churches I’ve been involved with. There’s just this moralistic, therapeutic deism, as Christian Smith calls it, this idea that “God is my best friend; God is the cosmic butler.” That is the real faith of American Christians, young Christians, and some of my generation. I’m 48.
What should the church do in response? Let’s stay involved in the outside world, but let’s also do a strategic retreat. That’s not, “head for the hills.” That’s doing things like turning off the television. Back away from the culture. We’re homeschoolers, my wife and me. We have seen a real difference between the kind of people who homeschool because they want something better for their kids and the kind of people who homeschool because they’re terrified of the outside world and want to just keep it way.
I think you run away from the people who are terrified because they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I say, as Christians, we have to tell ourselves, the church has to tell ourselves, our own story and shore up our own group, our own sense of ourselves right now because the culture is so overwhelming. Only then can we go out into the world and be a light to the world as we’re called to be.
Your most recent book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, tells the story of how you moved from the big city back to your small hometown in Southern Louisiana. That move resulted in a dark season in your life, didn’t it? A very dark season. I became depressed and I became physically ill, very ill with chronic mononucleosis, the Epstein-Barr virus. I was sleeping most of the day. I didn’t want to leave the house, and I couldn’t tell the difference between what the virus was doing and what depression was doing because they were intimately related. I finally went to see a rheumatologist to see if there was something more deeply wrong with me. He tested me and said, no, there’s not. He said, you definitely have the disease, but this is caused by intense stress. What are you stressed over?
I told him about this brokenness with my family. I feel that I had come all the way back to the threshold of my father’s house and wasn’t being allowed to cross over. It was like the prodigal son story if the prodigal son story had ended with the father taking the side of the jealous older brother. He said, you got to leave Louisiana or you’re going to destroy your health. I said, “I can’t do that. My family is here. Besides, I’ve moved my wife and kids too many times.” He said, you had better find inner peace some way or you’re not going to make it. …
The thing that really changed things was walking into a Barnes & Noble in Baton Rouge on a summer day and finding myself in the poetry section. I don’t read poetry. I don’t even read fiction that much, but there I was for some reason, and there on the shelf was The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. I remember thinking, “I wish I had read that back in the day.” I tend to be the sort of person who admires the great books much more than I read the great books, but I thought, “That’s going to be too hard. It’s a 700-year-old poem. I missed my chance in college to read this.” But for whatever reason, my hand went up there, and I pulled it off the shelf, and I opened it up. [I read] the first lines or the first canto of the Inferno, “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the straight path,” and I thought, “That’s me. He’s talking about me,” and I kept reading. … I didn’t read it like a literary analysis; I read it like a man who was trying to save his life. Five months later, I came out the other side and the Lord had healed me, I believe, through this poem.
It really is the story of you being healed isn’t it? It’s the story of what you might call bibliotherapy, about how my encounter with this great book, with this poem, this intimate poem, changed me and opened me up to grace and repentance. The thing about this poem that really knocked me flat was how much Dante read me. I was reading Dante, but Dante was really reading me. Going through the Inferno, when he descends down into hell, that’s a metaphor for going into one’s own sinful heart. What Dante did was uncover all the hidden places in my heart where I had sealed up the catacomb and didn’t deal with it because it was too difficult. Dante broke those open and forced me to confront the dragons in there. …
Dante revealed to me that I had placed family and place—that is, the land—on such a high pedestal. I gave them the place in my heart that belonged only to God, and I didn’t see this because I was a Christian, am a Christian, have been a Christian most of my life. If you had asked me, “Are you putting anything above God?” I would have said, “No,” but in fact I was. When I was able to repent of that actively, consciously, a floodgate of grace opened up, and that’s when the healing began.
How are you doing today? I’m happy. But you know what I learned? The church is my real home. Not the church as in the institution, necessarily, but the communion of saints. That was the great blessing of this whole thing. I thought my home was going to be this place on earth, Starhill, La., and I do live there and I love it, but I love it in a rightly ordered way. I realized that only in the Lord can I find rest. I would have known it in a, I don’t know, maybe a propositional way before, but now I know it in my bones.
Listen to Warren Smith’s complete conversation with Rod Dreher on Listening In.
Also see D.C. Innes’ “The call for a ‘Benedict Option.’”