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Following Jesus

Building the Benedict Option

The Next 100 Years

February 18, 2020 by

Building the Benedict Option; art by Donal McKernan
Art by Donal McKernan

“All the desert has become a city!” exclaimed Athanasius in the fourth century. He was describing the thousands of young seekers flocking to the desert of Egypt, feeling the call of monastic living. Throughout the centuries, this has been a paradox of the Christian communal life; a Francis of Assisi or a Benedict of Nursia will turn their back on a decadent culture and leave it behind, only to be followed by thousands of others, in time creating a new culture from the fringes of the old.

Fast forward seventeen hundred years, and once again we find ourselves in the West in what I see as a pagan culture overlaid with a thin Christian veneer. So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us to once again see serious Christians heading for the desert – metaphorically, and sometimes literally. Popular blogger Rod Dreher has written extensively on this trend. His 2017 book The Benedict Option catapulted these ideas into mainstream discourse and has inspired follow-ups such as Leah Libresco’s Building the Benedict Option, which aspires to be a guide to putting The Benedict Option into practice. The original book is nearly three years old, yet it continues to make waves, with recent articles in The Times and on UnHerd profiling several Christian communities directly inspired by Dreher’s vision.

As a thirty-four-year-old father who thinks often of what kind of world my two young children will inherit, I find it exciting to hear of fellow believers living more faithfully and communally, and have even come into contact with some of these folk here in rural Australia. But many Christians have had the opposite reaction, claiming that Dreher is scare-mongering and defeatist, and that as believers we should be evangelizing and engaging with secular culture, not “heading for the hills” (which is just a lazy caricature of Dreher’s message).

I live at Danthonia, a Bruderhof Christian community in rural Australia that probably looks something like the way many people imagine a Benedict Option community to be. Our family eats mostly home-grown meat, vegetables, and fruit; we spend as much time as possible outdoors, and our children are educated by other community members. Does our distance from the cities isolate us? Maybe, but I’ve lived the urban life too, and found it far more isolating, with its sense of uprootedness, its frenetic pace, and the tendency of so many to live in self-made high-tech shells. Here in “the bush,” strong connections have formed with neighbors, local churches, the indigenous community, local firefighters – these things happen naturally in country areas (at least in ours). I’ve discovered that crowds of humanity are not necessarily the best places for meaningful encounters. Call me a country rustic, but I prefer people in manageable quantities.

And on the topic of people, what if putting one’s faith into practice by living intentionally in Christian community is really the best way to evangelize? What if the most effective way to engage with the culture is to ignore it?

“Ignore” is a strong word, but let me explain what I mean; I actually don’t believe it’s possible to engage or reach a “culture” – that’s like going after a mirage. I believe we can only reach individual souls, and even that is often difficult. Rather than chasing fashions, isn’t it far better to build a Kingdom culture into which we can welcome the refugees of postmodernism and others dissatisfied with the status quo? Maybe instead of “reaching the culture,” we should reach those alienated by the culture. I believe example is the best way to do this: the example of simply living faithfully in unsettled times.

And these are unsettled times. Many compare the present era to Rome’s late decadent stage and the ensuing Dark Ages; others draw parallels to the French Revolution or the American Civil War. Dreher is fond of the term “Weimar America,” named after Germany’s short-lived Weimar Republic. In his words:

The Weimar period was marked by political, economic, and social instability, and intense cultural creativity as well as decadence. Weimar was [a] time in which the center did not hold, and extremism took over the imaginations of many Germans, especially the young.

It does sound familiar. The other thing about Weimar Germany is that then too, many young people were leaving the cities to create a new world in the shell of the old. Admittedly, most of these settlements were more like hippie communes than monasteries, but the underlying urge for renewal was the same. One Weimar-era community was the original Bruderhof, the point of difference being that it was decidedly Christian, inspired by the early church.

In contemporary lingo, you might say the Bruderhof was started by the “Ben-Oppers” of a hundred years ago, who were tired of mere talk and ready to build something new. A small group moved from cosmopolitan Berlin to the middle of nowhere, and what happened? People followed. A communal life grew. The desert (or the bucolic wooded hills of Germany in this case) became a city. They modelled their collective life on the Anabaptist settlements of the sixteenth century; communities that were family-based rather than strictly celibate. One hundred years before Building the Benedict Option, they offered a lived example that embodies much of what Dreher describes. On occasion the nascent Bruderhof was accused of escapism (and we sometimes still are), but Bruderhof founder Eberhard Arnold didn’t see it that way:

If sixty or ninety people gather together in a place far removed from any town, in the mountains, half an hour away from the nearest village, some city-dwellers consider that a monastic attitude. They feel these people are withdrawing to the desert . . . . It is based on the opinion that, if we Christians are to be the salt [of the earth], we should not join together in close-knit groups. But this objection can and must be refuted. Marriage can be seen as a concentration of powers through the oneness given by the Spirit. The love of two spouses releases and ignites a greater power. How much more is this the case where many people unite!

Building the Benedict Option

Castelluccio di Norcia, Italy. Photo: Fabrizio Lunardi

I think Dreher would agree with Arnold’s communalist sentiments here, but it seems their motivations do differ somewhat. While Dreher (or at least his book’s subtitle) promotes community as “a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation,” Arnold sees it as the natural result of loving your neighbor as yourself. Would Dreher be advocating community if there were no persecution of Christians in America? I don’t know. Would Arnold? Absolutely! This may seem like a moot point (we are in a post-Christian culture after all), but I think it’s an important difference because it affects a community’s outlook: a group of Christians living together out of joyful conviction is a light to the world; a group of Christians living together out of fear, even justified fear, may not be. (Having said that, the Ben-Oppers I’ve met are all very joyful and outgoing folk – not tinfoil-hat paranoid types.)

Rod Dreher has been called an “arch-reactionary” by The Guardian, and a “combative, oversharing blogger” by The Washington Post. What is so affronting about a man who advises Christians to “strategic retreat”? I would have thought the secular media would celebrate having fewer religious radicals around the place. Could it be that they understand that communal groups modelling a faithful Christian life might be the most effective evangelism, in contrast to contemporary culture?

Other critics have asked how these new communities will be funded, implying that such a lifestyle is only available to upper-middle-class, white Christians with money to throw around. But a quick look at history shows us that many communal movements – The Catholic Worker, The Base Communities of Latin America, the L’Arche movement, to name a few– started with little or no money and yet survived through prayer, hard work, and miracles, not as a result of sound economic plans. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is; but it seems that God smiles on crazy attempts. Often the economic sphere sorted itself out later, sometimes in the form of a community-run business connected to a common purse (as in our case) and sometimes in other ways, such as via reliable donor networks.

Even if Dreher’s critics are right that he hasn’t painted a detailed enough picture of what the Benedict Option might look like, at least he has realized (as few others have) that the future of Christianity is communal. So, rather than look for loopholes and attack apparent inconsistencies, wouldn’t it be more helpful to ask with him and others like Libresco, “What should a communal Christianity look like?”

True, this question can only be answered through trial and error, but unlike the early Church, we modern Christians have centuries of communal history from which to glean wisdom and ideas. Brothers and sisters, let’s make the desert into a city once again! Who knows how many of Dreher’s readers (and his critics) will trek across the sand to join us?

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About the author

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Donal McKernan

Donal McKernan lives with his wife Cornelia and two children at Danthonia Bruderhof, in New South Wales, Australia.

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