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Life in Community

Turn Back Time?: Considering the Benedict Option

May 12, 2017 by

“Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days/ When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.”

Taking public transportation home from class, I tuned out this song more often than not, but recently I’ve wondered if the lyrics speak to a wider sentiment among my peers. The song by Twenty One Pilots was, after all, a top-ten single last year. What if there was a way to turn back time, go back to a less-complicated lifestyle?

Turns out there is. Ever been to a monastery or convent? Talk about a time warp – the last time I stepped inside the walls of a convent, my modest dress didn’t stop me from feeling wildly out of place. But there’s something inside those walls that is worth considering, which is why a few of us from Fox Hill Community’s youth group have been reading Rod Dreher’s bestselling book The Benedict Option, which has created a lot of buzz since its publication in March. After reading each chapter on our own, we get together to discuss our questions and thoughts – usually a pretty heated evening with a lot of opinions and ideas flying around.

the reading group having a discussion together

The book lays out an action plan for Christians who find themselves under attack as society grows more hostile to their beliefs. Roughly, Dreher suggests that Christians must find ways to band together, building communities of believers who can support one another through the sociopolitical storms that he feels are sure to come. The base model for his plan? A cloistered community of Benedictine monks high on a mountain in Italy.

My gut reaction to Dreher’s idea may have been similar to your own. What’s the good of walling yourself off from the world? Aren’t we commanded to be light and salt? Even if you succeed in guarding a small number of people from the influences of the day, how does this advance God’s kingdom on earth?

This might sound hypocritical coming from someone who’s spent most of her life in a supportive, though certainly not cloistered, community. I am grateful for parents and community members who encouraged me to stretch my wings and my perspective, providing ample opportunities for me to interact with people of varying backgrounds and beliefs, and for my education in a public university, where my friends included Muslims, Christians of varying degrees, agnostics, and ichthyologists (fish biologists – not a religion). I love getting out in the neighborhood around Fox Hill, and I’m pretty sure you’ll never see a wall surrounding a Bruderhof community. We try to remember Jesus’ commandment to “Go out into all the world…”

So my initial response to Dreher’s book was doubtful, at least. I do agree, though, that it’s getting more and more difficult to stand alone as a Christian.

My friend Ava and I first hit it off over a shared aversion to a distasteful novel we’d been assigned in a lit class. In our first conversation, I discovered that although she had dreamed of becoming an English professor, the opposition Ava met as a Christian in the largely atheistic department had forced her to reconsider. For weeks, she struggled over her decision, knowing that hers might be the only Christian perspective her classmates might hear, and pondering her responsibility to be “salt and light” in the English grad program. Eventually, Ava decided to throw her energy at a positive undertaking rather than a desperate defense of her faith, and changed her major to secondary education.

Currently wrapping up her last year of classes, Ava has a teaching position waiting for her, where she is excited to collaborate with likeminded Christians and where she hopes to positively affect her students’ lives. She didn’t give up, but rather rechanneled her energy for greater impact. In our lit class, Ava gave me a bookmark on which was written, “With God all things are possible,” and said, “Here. I’ve found it helps to put something good into the books.” All semester, we buoyed each other in and after class; our friendship showed me the value of connecting with other Christians in a hostile environment.

As our post-Christian society wanders further and further into self-gratifying relativism, Christ’s followers need to come together to support each other. But this isn’t a new idea. Actually, Christian communities have existed since Christianity’s earliest days. Community is not a timely alternative but rather the fulfillment of Jesus’ commands. I count on my brothers and sisters daily to encourage and admonish me to stay true to Christ’s commands, and try to do the same for them. This isn’t a head-in-the-sand mentality or the building of a bubble, but a necessary focusing of energy and strength.

In a similar sense, the Benedictine monks on the mountaintop in Italy wouldn’t like my opening line above, it turns out. Reading further in the book, I came across these words from one of the brothers: “People say, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to turn back the clock.’ That makes no sense. If you’re doing something right now, it means you’re doing it right now. It’s new, and it’s alive! And that’s a very powerful thing.”

I’m still not convinced about the mountaintop fortress idea, though. Rather than withdrawing from society in isolation, Christian communities should stand as an embassy of God’s kingdom, demonstrating Christ’s love for all people. In order to grow God’s kingdom, we are told to be like yeast in the dough, not yeast up on the shelf.

two women making bread

What do you think? What steps can you take to support other Christians in your church or community while also representing God’s love for everyone?

Our book group is tackling N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian next. Do you have any other recommendations for us?


About the author

Shana Goodwin

Shana Goodwin

Shana Goodwin works as an editor for the Bruderhof’s publishing house, Plough, and lives at the Fox Hill Community, with her...

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  • It is interesting that the main message Shana's sees in the book is the "isolation." I think this is a reflection of her age, and environment as a college student. But, in fact, the full gist of Dreher's message is the need for a deep and abiding community that preserves the tenets of Christian faith and practice, ones rooted in love and commitment, in the current and coming time of dissolution of the institutions of Christianity. Of course, she and I come from different generations: I am in my mid-fifties, and grew up in a small town in the 60s where we still had this sense of community, and most people were practicing Christians (and have an English degree, so I know how to read in multiple layers). Shana is living The Benedict Option now, as she illustrates so well here, but I have been STARVING for this type of community for decades, and I can see the effect growing up in a mobile, non-community setting has had on my now young adult children. So if you are reading this post, and thinking about dismissing the book, don't. Read with with depth, or read it again. This young lady has "live" insight because she has been part of exactly the kind of community Dreyer is talking about (so perhaps she does not see she is already living it?) That is good. She is a great example of the Benedict Option already!

  • Great Post! Two others and I have been reading The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century by Joan Chittister. I find it amazing that something written so long ago is so relevant today. Cittister did not mention living an isolated life like Dreher did. I think living out the "rules" like practicing humility and such is what makes an impact when we are authentic wherever we go.

    Kristina Hartz
  • I found out about your community recently through a friend who has been acquainted with Bruderhof for some time now. It appears to be a biblical, and so viable way of life for serious Christians, as your communities have been proving for decades. I do have questions, but have only read 4 or 5 of the articles on the site here. I am interested in receiving the blog, and may sign up for a visit at the Walden, NY community in the near future. Thanks

  • Turning back time is good . The pop culture of this current era is creepy, sordid, tacky, and fiendishly vapid . It is high time people dare to be antiquated ; dare to promote authentic community like the disciples of Jesus had in the book of Acts . Being salt and light means being available for those who want to rightly get away from the culturally and mentally *entropic* popular culture where women and even children are now being addressed with the word "dude" , and the deaths of innocent children (like Caylee Anthony) are turned into fodder for media gossip and obscene entertainment on the News channels and the Lifetime Movie Network . Those of us who value living the way of Jesus and the disciples (cultivating that which is wholesome) should not have to pander and find some middle ground with the postmodernist sellout thinking which would settle for any degree of lowered expectations .

    Jason Leary