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The Benedict Option

The ‘Benedict Option’ is an idea, a book and a movement, which has attracted great interest in the USA, and beyond, in the last couple of years. It is the brainchild of Rod Dreher, an American journalist and author

Much of it is familiar. Its core argument is that, in post-Christendom, the Church, inspired by the example of Benedict of Nursia (480–537), needs to construct close, intentional, communities as contexts for evidentially living out radical discipleship in the face of a fragmented and decadent society.

The Benedict Option echoes much that I have been thinking, reading, and speaking in recent years.  In such times as ours, in a time of crisis, at an, or the, ‘eleventh hour’, the urgent priority must be to return to our (biblical) roots and reconfigure church in line with the Founder’s instructions as, what Lesslie Newbigin described as ‘sign, instrument and foretaste’.

The jumping off point for the Benedict Option is the famous ‘prophetic’ paragraph in Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Drawing a parallel between the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages and the Western world in the 20th Century, McIntyre concludes:

“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us… This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.”

For Dreher, and those on whom he draws for inspiration, the central question is, what must the church do in order to live and witness faithfully as a minority in a culture in which we were once the majority? And the answer is found in forming communities shaped around the basic Benedictine principles of order, prayer and work, stability, community living, hospitality and balance.

The critical issue is for Christians to regain confidence in who we are and to what we are called, to rediscover our ‘story’. In an FAQ on the Benedict Option, Dreher argues that modern Christianity does not challenge modernity’s assumptions (and has therefore been infiltrated by them) because ‘we Christians are forgetting our story”. Quoting Robert Louis Wilken, Dreher avers:

 “At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.”

I realise that the second half of the final sentence above reveals a side of the Benedict Option with which many evangelicals may be less than comfortable, i.e. the idea that Christendom was ‘Christian’ and that we, in some way, need to recover it. This is for another context, but, I would argue, the essence of the Benedict Option does not necessarily require a commitment to, or expectation of, the recovery of Christendom, a ‘Christian consensus society’ (Schaeffer), the Christian story and Christian values as our society’s plausibility structure (Newbigin) or ‘Christian Britain’. In its essentials, it emphasises and nourishes our understanding of the call to construct communities that are refuges in the storm and beacons of lights in the darkness, whatever the duration of the storm or the darkness. And, at this present juncture, this may be for us the ‘one thing that is needful’.

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