Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Dismissing “The Benedict Option” In Favor of “The Grace of God” Option

The Benedict Option: Read the Review, not the book
First, a bit of ironic humor: When I speak to Christian groups the question I hear most often is: “How do the Jews keep their children in the fold?” The answer, of course, is that most of us don’t. As the joke goes, the difference between Donald Trump and a liberal Jew is that Trump has Jewish grandchildren.

A question that preoccupies many of us, both in election years and non-election years, is “how can Christians (and Christianity) maintain an influence in a world that seems to trend more ungodly with each passing minute?”

One option put forth is by the Methodist-turned-Roman-Catholic-turned-Eastern-Orthodox writer Rob Dreher, is “The Benedict Option” – not named after “Pope Benedict”. Both “The Benedict Option” and “Pope Benedict” are named after the fifth-century Monastic Benedict of Nursia, who developed the famous “Rule of St. Benedict” not merely for “monasticism”, but for “a confederation of autonomous communities” living apart from the world. It is said that “most religious communities founded throughout the Middle Ages” adhered to this rule.

David Goldman has reviewed “The Benedict Option”, and he has done it in a non-fawning way:

There is something inherently odd about the Benedict Option, the view that Christians should retreat from the world into small and tightly knit communities where they may live a Christian life with a minimum of disturbance from the evil side of modernity. Christianity by its nature has a universal mission. It speaks to the evil of our age that devout Christians want to encyst themselves against the secular world.

Goldman, who is Jewish, seems to disagree that Christians ought to try to entrench themselves, and he bases his conclusions on several things:

Strictly Orthodox communities of Jews, while successful in maintaining the religious identities generation after generation, pay a price. “The Satmar Hasidic sect’s enclave of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, New York, had the highest poverty rate in the nation as of 2008. They are also heavily dependent on public assistance.” The alternative, “Modern Orthodox Jewish students” “tend towards well-compensated professions in anticipation of the high cost of educating their children. The Modern (or university-educated) Orthodox embrace secular education in parallel to Jewish learning, and are one of the most successful communities in the United States. They need to be. As noted, marrying young is the only reliable way to insulate a community against the temptation of easy hook-ups. But that requires parents to support their married children for a considerable period of time.” Religious Jews, he says, illustrate “how difficult it is to insulate a religious community.”

The scientific and philosophical revolution of the 17th century was anticipated by the Augustinians at 14th-century Oxford, .... Their student was John Wycliffe, the first English translator of the Bible and the rightful founder of the concept of direct revelation from Scripture. Through his influence on the Reformers Wycliffe may be said to be the gravedigger of the medieval order.

Unlike Rod Dreher, I don’t see the Middle Ages as a model to return to. The mathematicians and physicists overthrew Scholasticism, and the philosophers came trundling along afterward to sweep up the pieces. Thanks to them we live in a world where no-one need starve, where mothers need not bury half their infant children, and where I can tap the entire store of human knowledge from the device on which I am now writing. The theology that attended the scientific revolution assigned extraordinary freedom and responsibility to individuals -- sola scriptura required that every individual read the Bible and receive revelation without priestly mediation. The political manifestation of this idea is a republic with neither anointed monarch nor established church, namely the United States of America.

It’s true, Goldman writes, “we have used our freedom badly. Freed from the constraints of traditional society we have whored after foreign gods and immersed ourselves in the sexual polymorphism of the ancient pagan world. To repudiate the ambient culture and seek a refuge in protective enclaves is a reasonable response, and in that respect I sympathize with Dreher. But that requires of us an individual initiative and commitment that is wholly alien to the medieval world, and entirely modern in outlook.”

In the end, Goldman points to the broader ideals behind the founding of the United States, a Republic in which, by “the Grace of God”, “the regenerative powers are unique”.

WSCal professor R. Scott Clark recently wrote:
When, in 1517, Luther complained about the abuse of indulgences, he began a movement back to Scripture and toward a biblical understanding of piety in which Christ’s grace received in public worship overflows into private prayer and family devotions. He repudiated the error that there are two classes of Christians, and he repudiated their spiritual exercises. The Reformed followed him back to Scripture. But history tells us that there is a monk within each of us, continually looking for new ways to corrupt Christian piety, seeking to draw our eyes away from Christ, His grace, and His piety.

“Individuals” – individual people – make the world go ’round. And God’s Grace works in and through individuals, not through isolated, self-focused communities. Yes, trusting things to “individuals” out in the world has its risks. Things may change. We may not be able to hold onto our Medieval niceties. It might lead to “Reformation”. But it also offers the greatest opportunities for reward and continuity as well (note the Donald Trump joke at the beginning of this blog post. I realize that if you have to explain it, it’s not that funny. But still....)


  1. Goldman's review failed to mention several problems of cloistered communities, the first beingsexual abuse of minors. According to the Orthodox it is unlawful turn in one's fellow Jew to the civil authorities for any reason. This makes some sense given Jews' encounters with bigoted Gentile authorities, but puts children at risk by giving predators a break. Recent scandals in the Evangelical world suggest the problem to be human nature rather than the bent of any particular group.

    A second albeit related problem is the tyranny of community leaders unchecked by regard for civil rights. This stems from a lack of accountability cum brainwashing and browbeating.

    A third related problem is the suppression of dissent by means of ostracism. Should an hasid decide that his life would be better lived outside of his community he faces possible loss of his family, including spouse and children, to a machine the community has to wear him down in court.

    I'm sure the problem list can be lengthened, but the above should give us reason to reject Mr Dreher's thesis.

    1. Kirk, I'm sure that Goldman was either being kind or conscious of space considerations, or both. ;-)

      You seem to be very familiar with Orthodox Jewish culture and customs -- what's your interest or background if I may ask?

    2. As a physician, two subjects I had to learn were Jews and Italians; rumor has it that Asians have been added to the curriculum ;-) I had Orthodox Jewish colleagues but got into reading about the beliefs and culture when the Lubavitcher hasidim began to speak of their rebbe as the messiah. A now-defunct website,, used to expose Orthodoxy's dirty laundry. I guess one could say that any knowledge I have is really public knowledge.

      I have found similar problems with Christian separatist communities and movements. My own experience with seeing pastors getting railroaded, the disgusting politics of our homeschooling "community," and how easy it is to block church courts in order to stick it to one's personal enemy - all with Christian love, of course - has made me very hesitant to trust anything like what Dreher proposes and write it off as theology of glory blather. I'm also enough of a believer in total depravity to demand accountability to outside authority.