Benedict (480-547), also known as Saint Benedict, is known for having established 12 monasteries Italy. He was a man deeply concerned for the decline of his culture, including its morals and standards of living. In response, Benedict founded monasteries that lived according to a rule that he prescribed for all of them. His concern was to teach people what a Christian life was genuinely like. And so he prescribed 7½ – 8 hours of sleep per night. The rest of the day was divided into a period for liturgical and other prayers, then into a time for manual work, and then a time for private reading of scripture and spiritual writings. Thus he sought to lay out what a balanced life looked like. Added to this was the importance of education, which in his day was desperately needed.
More recently, Ron Dreher has published a book entitled, The Benedict Option. Dreher points out what so many of us already know. In the last several years, we have all witnessed a profound cultural shift, particularly with the rise of gay rights, the legalization of same-sex marriages and also the idea that gender is a fluid concept. He writes, “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. Their future will become increasingly grim, with lost jobs, bullying at school, and name-calling in the streets.”
So how should Christians respond? According to Dreher, America has transitioned from its Judeo-Christian roots. Today, Christianity cannot set the norm in American culture, and therefore we will have to undergo a significant adjustment. Dreher argues that Christians should not become monks like that of the Benedictine monasteries. But he does argue for a strategic and limited retreat from the world, and into our institutions and communities. How does this work?
He argues that we need to rid ourselves of the notion that politics will either save us or that it will even significantly help us. Instead, we need to retreat back to our churches. He argues for home schooling, and that the curriculum should include great Christian literature of the past along with the Bible. He argues for intentional Christian communities on campuses, and for a greater role of the local church in dictating the way in which we live. He argues that we need to secede from the cultural mainstream. To him, that means turning off our smartphones and watching only movies and television that are consonant with Christian values. Above all, we need to embrace the ideal of a culture that is at odds with the wider world.
So much more could be said, but consider this quote. “We are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age.” Indeed, he says that, “There can be no peace between Christianity and the sexual revolution, because they are radically opposed. As the sexual revolution advances, Christianity must retreat.” This retreat, however, can strengthen the enduring bonds of the intended life for believers.
There is much to think about, and much to commend. But I am also reminded of the Christian missionary William Carey. His missionary efforts into India led him to challenge the law of “Seti” in which living widows were burned along with their husbands. Christianity does mandate a social engagement which we must not relinquish. Simply retreating will not save the church.
But Dreher is right about something. If the church of Jesus Christ does not provide a robust and holistic alternative culture, it will lose its soul. I believe the present hour requires a radical rethinking of the Christian life. Local churches must, in some sense, be the Benedict Option. We must teach people what a balanced Christian life is like, and find a place, not for a single service on Sunday, but a church life that forms the center of our cultural life. And Dreher is also right that unless we define sexual purity for our people, we will witness the utter destruction of the church.