Dreher, Rod. Benedict Option.
I see myself as a friendly critic of Rod Dreher. I think he consistently makes good points, but I also think he is really good at riding the wave of crucial opinions, even if they happen to be correct. It’s hard to review this book. Do you remember that episode of “Arrested Development” where Gob gets hired as a consultant to a rival company? He was supposed to supply good ideas for the company. Having no clue what he was doing, he got his brother Michael to give him ideas. Michael gave him around thirty ideas. Gob presented them all at once. That’s kind of how this book is. I am going to focus primarily on his views of “intentional communities” and “education.”
He begins by noting that Big Business will side with the sexual revolution over conservative morality every single time. We’ll come back to this point, as it ties in with his criticisms of the GOP. What Dreher doesn’t realize is that the types of people who have always pointed this out were populists and nationalists. They also voted for Trump.
This next part of the book approaches dangerous waters. This happens whenever someone attempts a genealogical explanation of the current ills. In other words, the problem with x today can be traced back to y’s influence over 600 years ago. Whatever good points he might make, this is almost impossible to prove. For Dreher, as for Radical Orthodoxy and Brad Gregory, the problem is nominalism. I agree that nominalism is a problem. But to trace the loss of realism as creating the Renaissance, Reformation, and all the way to the sexual revolution today is impossible to prove. So far, Dreher’s book is an updated version of Francis Schaeffer, and parts of it are quite good.
Is the Benedict Option saying we should live in intentional communities where we won’t be persecuted? Not exactly, though Dreher makes clear that he doesn’t rule it out. On one hand, he notes that you don’t have to move to the hinterlands to “Be the Benedict Option.” Local communities need skilled workers in jobs that are rewarding, if difficult, and don’t force one to violate his convictions. On the other hand, one suspects Dreher wants more than that. He rightly points out that Christians who live in communities that are close to the local church are more close-knit communities that can help one another in trouble. Very true.
I am very wary of intentional communities. It just seems like post-evangelicals are LARPing. The potential for abuse is high. By saying that I am not saying that makes intentional communities wrong. I am simply pointing out a built-in weakness. According to theory, proper church government models and civil government models have built-in checks to accountability (at least they did before the 2020 election). Intentional communities are vague on that point, though some usually subscribe to a vague, if sometimes legalistic, church covenant.
Dreher is certainly aware of that. In 2015 he wrote a fine article criticizing and calling attention to the sexual abuse scandals in Moscow, ID. He noted that he had once considered Moscow a viable example of a Benedict Option community. Moscow, ID is indeed a clear example, but for darker reasons.
All of that, regardless of the pros and cons of such a position, is meant to carry water for something else: Christian education. I think this is the most controversial, albeit interesting, part of the book. Like many conservatives, Dreher calls attention to the failing public schools, both morally and academically. Nothing new there. What about private schools? Dreher is just as hard on them. Private schools do not provide a specifically Christian education and are more often country clubs for rich people’s kids. The morals might not be as bad as public schooling, but they are getting there.
Well, what about specifically Christian education? That’s still not good enough for Dreher. He points out–with some justification–that Christian education is simply the standard subjects with “Jesus on top.” He has a point there. How do you “Christianly” teach the Pythagorean theorem? You can say you are “doing it for the glory of God,” but the formula didn’t change.
Well, what about homeschooling? He likes the idea. The problem, though, and this is a legitimate point, is that homeschooling isn’t for every student, it requires a certain level of discipline from the parent, and it requires both a two parent household and the ability to live on a single income.
Therefore, the only possible alternative left is the classical education model. There is a lot I like about the classical model, yet I don’t share the “it will save Western Civilization” mindset. Classical models begin–some, anyway–with the proper mindset to education. We shouldn’t ask of an education, “What can I do with it?” Rather, we should be aware of the inevitable question, “What will this education do to me?” Further, I like how in the humanities the classical model is better able to integrate Jesus and the Western tradition. Classical models correctly see education as transmitting virtue and wisdom.
In terms of history, writing, and literature the classical model is superb, far excelling the others. However, I have seen from personal experience, from a noted classical school, that when students get into some public and charter schools they are years behind in math. Granted, this probably depends more on student and teacher. I just see classical models as stronger on the humanities that STEM.
And that raises another issue: several key advantages of the classical model can be accomplished on one’s own. With a good library you can read the exact same classics. Bloom’s or Cambridge Companions can provide scholarly interaction with these sources. You can learn Latin on your own with youtube helps. Wheelock’s and many Catholic sources have great Latin helps. You don’t need a specific school for that.
That raises another point. As is the case with seminary professors and Hebrew, how many of the students continue to read and translate Latin? Unless they continue it, what was the point? Sure, it gives them better verbal skills on tests and an entry into the Romance languages. But even in those languages, do they continue?
I like much about the classical model. I just have my reserves. I think its strengths often can be found elsewhere.
I understand how this book is popular. Dreher is a very good writer and he put his finger on numerous key problems. I think part of my frustration with the book is that he comes across as sloganeering and doesn’t always develop and analyze his own points. For example, he correctly notes that many Christian schools (and worldview talk in general) simply do the curriculum but say “It’s Jesus’s Curriculum,” which actually does nothing to change the pedagogy. That said, he doesn’t always explain how the Benedict Option integrates math and science in a Jesus-worldview without doing the same thing.
Elsewhere, he makes many good points about the coming crisis that Christians will have to face, and how we might have to seek employment in ways that require us to work with our hands. To be honest, I like Dreher’s vision a lot more than the standard gentrification models of The Gospel Coalition. If read with a very critical eye, this book will get one thinking about possible future models of Christian existence.