No God, Me God, or Benedict’s Option

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A priest told me this simple, quick story. But I never forgot it.

Man walked into a jewelry store and was greeted by the sales associate.

“How may I help you?” she asked.

“I’m interested in a cross,” he said.

“Oh,” she replied. “Do you want a plain cross, or one with the little man on it?”

The priest stopped. That was the end of the story.

It was a harmless question that said so much. “The little man?” Jesus Christ, known to some as the Son of God and savior of the world, had been reduced to an anonymous jewelry accessory.

The crucifix is easily ignored. I teach in a Catholic school and that instrument of torture, with Jesus hanging on it, is located on a wall in every room.

I would point it out to my students. “That’s our version of a recruitment poster,” I’d tell them.

“No wonder we have a hard time finding new members.”

Some students would laugh, uncomfortably. They wanted me to move on from the cross. If I was going to talk about religion, couldn’t it be something nice?

If we want religion at all, and the surveys say fewer and fewer do, then we prefer it folded up neatly and placed in our pocket; to be pulled out at our choosing, as we immerse ourselves in society.

That is why Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, is disquieting. He calls for the religious, especially those he calls orthodox Christians, to separate themselves from society – actually take their Christian doctrines seriously and live by them. 

“Recognizing the toxins of modern secularism, as well as the fragmentation caused by relativism,” Dreher writes, “Benedict Option Christians look to Scripture and to Benedict’s Rule for ways to cultivate practices and communities.”

Dreher’s book is not is a manual on how to run away and hide from the world; nor a platform to stand aside and judge. It is not a strategy for curing the world.

It is a way to live, simplified; unaffected by trends, polls, and, lately, accusations of being a hater and bigot. While not groundbreaking, its message resonates. Even his critics call this an important read.

Dreher’s basis for this simplified life is St. Benedict, the sixth century monk who walked away from the crumbling culture of Rome to live in a cave, eventually heading a monastery and developing guidelines for the community – known as the Rule of St. Benedict.

Dreher is not calling for everyone to be like monks; not exactly.

“We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity … The Rule, with its vision of an ordered life centered around Christ and the practices it prescribes to deepen our conversion, can help us achieve that goal.”

But does a Christian really want a life centered on Christ? Or do we want only the nice things, like self-esteem boosts and subjective happiness; a way to create ourselves in our image? Dreher quotes a Lutheran pastor, Richard Wurmbrand, who survived torture in communistic Romania. He said there are two types of Christians:  “Those who sincerely believe in God and those who, just as sincerely, believe that they believe.”

Read those words two or three times, in a humble, self-examining way.

Dreher, for all his criticism of the culture, presents his case in a humble manner. His discernment is of his own and others’ actions; not a judgment of who they are.

Early in the book, Dreher outlines five events that “rocked” western civilization, dating from the 14th century philosophies (such as nominalism, which denies that nature points to God) to, finally, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s into today.

Why the big deal about sex when there are so many real problems in the world? Aren’t Dreher and other Christians just being prudes? Well, yes, as in prudent. Pornography, the vanishing emphasis on marriage, and the abundance of fatherless children have rocked our world. It’s a big deal.

“Kids today grow up in a culture that seeks to obliterate the natural family:  one man and one woman bound exclusively to each other, and the children they have together.”

Dreher quotes a professor who worries “about my students, whether or not they will ever be able to sustain a family. Most of them have never seen what a traditional family looks like.”

Dreher calls on parents to turn their homes into a “domestic monastery.” I like that, for obvious reasons if you’ve read this space before. Home and family are key (as are education and supportive communities).  

This is only a sparse summary. There is much more to the book, including commentary on politics (quit looking at it as a savior) and sage warnings about technology.

I wanted to teach about The Benedict Option, but I finished reading (and re-reading) it after school let out. When I can teach it to my students, I will add that many people won’t buy into it. Then I will point again to the cross on the wall, and throw a little St. Paul at them.

“The message of the cross is complete absurdity” to the world … “Do not act like fools, but thoughtful men. Make the most of the present opportunity, for these are evil days. Do not continue in ignorance, but try to discern the will of the Lord.”

I think that is what Dreher is trying to say.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.