Karen Swallows Prior gives a concise introduction to an important idea to consider:
The Benedict Option—a proposal for how Christians might live in a post-Christian culture—has proven to be a Rorschach test: everyone seems to see something different in it. Perhaps these variations owe, in part, to the development of the idea over several years under public scrutiny, accompanied by spirited discussion. The idea is finally put forward in full with the March 14 publication of the book by Rod Dreher, writer and columnist for The American Conservative. Because of the ample criticism and commentary that have been offered along the book’s way, it might be most helpful simply to look closely at what The Benedict Option is—and isn’t—proposing.
Understanding the title goes a long way toward understanding the concept. “Benedict” refers, of course, to the sixth century founder of a monastic order established during the swirling cultural chaos of the falling Roman Empire. Dreher turns to Benedict to pick up on a suggestion made by moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his 1981 book, After Virtue. MacIntyre points to Benedict as a model from the past for our current culture, which no longer sees virtue as essential to a flourishing civilization. “Option” is a twist on Rule, the name of the guidelines Benedict developed for godly and communal living in the monastery. Dreher’s use of “option” is an implicit acknowledgment that everything in modernity is a matter of choice, right down to the very attempt to resist modernity.
The Benedict Option’s vision is not to make nuns and monks of modern Christians. Nor does it propose a bunker (whether literal or figurative) from which to establish merely an updated version of the fundamentalist separatism of yore. Nor is the turn to Benedict a quixotic attempt to recapture a romanticized past.
To the contrary, The Benedict Option calls Christians wherever they live and work to “form a vibrant counterculture” by cultivating practices and communities that reflect the understanding that Christians, who are not citizens of this world, need not “prop up the current order” (18). While the monastery that birthed the Benedict Rule was literal, the monastery invoked in The Benedict Option is metaphorical. It is not a place, but a way.
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