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How should Christians live as the society around us grows increasingly hostile to faith? Plough’s Peter Mommsen visited New York Times-bestselling author Rod Dreher in his Louisiana home for a wide-ranging conversation about Donald Trump, religious liberty, American empire, persecution, and why Christian community is a big part of the answer.
Peter Mommsen: In recent months, you’ve created a stir by blogging about what you call the Benedict Option, and you have a forthcoming book by that title. What is the Benedict Option, and why do you think we need it?
Rod Dreher: The name comes from Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue, which compares our society’s situation with the time after the fall of the Roman Empire. MacIntyre writes that we are waiting for a new and quite different Saint Benedict to teach us how to live in community again because we’ve become so fragmented. Benedict of Nursia was a young Christian born shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire who went to Rome to study. He became disgusted with the chaos and the decadence he saw in the city, and went out to the woods to pray and to ask God what he should do with his life. For three years he lived in a cave. When he came down, he founded a community of men to live together in what he called a school for the service of the Lord. This became the Benedictine order.
Benedict wrote his Rule as a constitution for these men to live together. That little document and Benedict’s little mustard-seed community of monks ended up becoming enormously influential in the life of the West. They held Christianity together during the so-called Dark Ages. The monks went into barbarian areas to evangelize, and if the barbarians killed them off, the mother house would send more brothers out. Slowly, these men laid the ground for the rebirth of Christian civilization in the West.
What does this have to do with us today? Although MacIntyre wasn’t a Christian when he wrote his book, what I take from him is that we need small communities of committed believers who are willing to live counterculturally and bear witness. Christians today need to take stock of where we are as a culture and where we are likely to go. If our faith is going to make it over the generations, we are going to have to change our way of living dramatically. We’re going to have to be much more intentional and much more communal.
Critics of the Benedict Option say that it’s a form of retreat – of abandoning society in order to live a purer, holier life. Are they right to see a kind of selfishness in withdrawing?
That’s a claim that drives me crazy: “You just want to go run to the hills and live in your bunker and wait for the end.” That’s absolutely not what I’m saying. What I am saying is, we need to have a strategic, limited retreat from the mainstream for the same reason you would protect a candle with a lantern if you go outside in a gale. Otherwise, the wind would be so strong that it would blow the light out. The currents of culture have become so antithetical to Christianity that if we’re going to form ourselves and our kids in the authentic faith, we’re going to have to have some kind of limited withdrawal.
What do I mean by that? I mean to put your kids in an authentic Christian school, for example. I mean things as simple as turning off the TV. Don’t be so quick to open the door to popular culture. Growing up, I experienced how television wrecked any morals my parents were trying to teach us – they were fairly conservative, but the TV was like a sewer pipe into the home. Today it’s smartphones. Even in my small Louisiana town, fifth-grade boys are watching hardcore pornography on their smartphones. The parents of these boys just choose not to see.
But it’s not just running away from what’s destructive – it’s running toward something good. Our kids go to a classical school here in Baton Rouge. The teachers are trying to show the parents of the students: You may have the right instinct to get your kid out of the cesspit of the mainstream by sending them to this school, but it’s not going to help if you just shelter them. You have to show them something good and beautiful and true to build their souls up.
That’s what I think the Benedict Option ideally should do. It should show the good fruits of a countercultural life in Christian community, and in that way be evangelical. If you’re not evangelical in some sense you’re not Christian. It is a missionary faith. But that doesn’t mean that we have to throw ourselves in the middle of everything when we’re not even properly formed. I know a lot of Christian parents don’t want to take their kids out of the public schools because they say, “Well, our kids need to be salt and light.” I’m afraid that’s incredibly naïve in many cases, when you have third and fourth graders already talking about transgenderism and bisexuality.
The Benedictine monks set a good example here. They are much more cloistered than any lay community could afford to be. They say, “We have the walls there because we cannot fulfill our mission to serve Christ in the way we’re called to serve him without some walls separating us from the world.” But they also have a Benedictine principle of hospitality. Saint Benedict tells his monks to welcome every stranger and every visitor as Christ himself. That openness allows them to maintain contact with the world and to share the good things they have with the world.
For me as a member of the Bruderhof, the community that publishes Plough, it’s crucial that our life is not about withdrawal but precisely the opposite. Living in community is about building a place where the peace, justice, and love of the kingdom of God are visible, in a way of life that is open to everyone.
I agree. It’s similar to when a husband and wife come together and pledge their lives to each other. They wall off the possibility of being involved romantically or sexually with anybody else so they can build something beautiful, deepen their love to each other and their love of God, and bring forth new fruit, that is to say, children. That is the attitude we need to have going into the Benedict Option.
Pope Benedict said that the greatest witness for the church is not its apologetics but the art it produces and its saints – the beautiful things that come out of its culture that reflect Christ and cause people to say, “God is in that.” In the postmodern age, people don’t really have the patience to hear rational arguments for the faith. Not to say we shouldn’t make them, but they’re going to be the least useful thing for spreading the faith. The most useful thing is going to be the love in our hearts and the good deeds and mercy that come out of that.
I remember when as a teenager – I was a very arrogant agnostic – I walked into the cathedral of Chartres in France. It knocked me flat. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the beauty of that medieval cathedral, the sense of harmony and depth. I knew that God was present. We don’t even know who built the thing, but I knew this was built by people who knew God. I walked out of that church knowing that I wanted whatever inspired the men who built that cathedral.
We no longer live in the age of cathedral-building. But we Christians need to relearn the habit of making good art and not kitsch, which is the bane of church life. In the course of the Benedict Option, craftsmanship and artistry should be reborn out of these communities as a way of serving the world and as a way of witness.
We have to expand our sense of what evangelism is. Leading a person toward the sinner’s prayer is one way of evangelizing. But another way I’ve found so effective with people I know who have come to the faith has been indirect: just being a friend to somebody, being open about your faith but not pushy, and living a life where the light of Christ shines through you.
That’s what I found when I spent a week with the Benedictine monks in the monastery founded by Saint Benedict in what’s now Norcia, Italy. The monks may never say a word to you about Jesus Christ, but you can see him in their faces, in the peace they have. I think that’s going to be the most effective form of evangelization in the twenty-first century.
Faith in Public
You’ve written that Christianity is under assault in contemporary culture. But how real is the threat? Liberals argue, for instance, that Christian religious liberty claims are just a cover for persecuting LGBT folks.
They’re wrong. In Canada right now there’s a push among the medical community to deny doctors licenses and accreditation if they refuse to perform abortions or euthanasia. In Fort Worth, Texas, this past year, the superintendent tried to compel teachers to teach gender theory to elementary school kids – not call them boys or girls but call them “scholars” and “students.” As a journalist at major newspapers in the 1990s, I was always “out” as a Christian, but today there’s so much bias against Christians in American newsrooms that I don’t think that would be possible. Where before my views on homosexuality – which are also my views on heterosexuality; I believe in the biblical standard – were just seen as eccentric, now they would probably keep me from being hired. The culture is slowly shifting to where people who affirm traditional Christian belief on sexuality are thought of as being morally equivalent to racists.
The monks may never say a word to you about Jesus Christ, but you can see him in their faces.
Many progressive Christians are saying: “We’re sick of Christianity being a religion that is homophobic and obsessed with sexuality.” But you’ve suggested that the sexual revolution is at the heart of the clash between the gospel and contemporary culture. Why is that?
Philip Rieff, a sociologist and a secular Jew, wrote a very important book in the sixties, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, in which he talked about the sexual revolution, which was just beginning, and he observed that opposition to sexual individualism is very near the core of Christian culture. Rieff said that since this opposition has not held, the churches will be discredited.
Jesus was a Jew of first-century Palestine; he believed and taught what Jews of that time believed about sexual purity. It’s just stunning to me that we think we can just toss all that out now because we in the twenty-first-century West have decided we know better. If we say marriage can be whatever we want it to be and we can do whatever we want with our bodies, it doesn’t matter as long as our hearts are OK with Jesus, we’re throwing so much overboard that we can’t throw overboard.
Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist leader, recently suggested that the marginalization of Christianity in the public square may be bad news for America but it’s good news for the church. Would you agree?
Insofar as it purges the cultural Christianity from the church, I think it’s good. On the other hand, there’s going to be a lot of suffering ahead, and a lot of people on the margins of the church, who might have been gradually brought closer to Christ, are going to fall away. I can’t rejoice in that or just say, “Bring it on,” even though the purification will probably make the church stronger and more faithful in the end. When the Christian witness gets muted or pushed to the side, it’s not just people in the church who will get hurt – society as a whole will suffer when it loses its leaven.
I think the church is going to have to become not more seeker-friendly but more finder-friendly. That means discipleship. We’ve got to go beyond just showing up on Sunday or having that altar-call conversion moment. What does it mean the next day? What does it mean to be formed in Christian habits, in Christian ways of life?
That’s something the monks in Norcia teach. They showed me the value of routine, of saying the same prayers and psalms and getting the Bible into your heart by reading it daily in lectio divina. Those everyday, ordinary rhythms get the Christian faith into your bones. It’s something we’re going to have to recover if we’re going to survive as a community of faith.
The Discipline of Community
As the Rule of Saint Benedict makes clear, the kind of common life you’re suggesting is impossible without discipline and mutual accountability.
That’s so necessary. I was talking to a Protestant pastor in Kentucky about this. A couple there that was divorcing wouldn’t submit to the authority of the church and come for counseling first to see if the marriage could be saved. They objected that this was none of the church’s business. So the church finally asked the couple to leave. That struck me as pretty radical, but this pastor told me, “It didn’t give us any joy to ask this couple to leave. They were our brother and sister. But the community has to mean something. We have to have discipline or our faith is nothing but therapy, feeling good about things.” It’s similar for us in the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox pastors I’ve had take confession very seriously. They will not grant you communion if you don’t come to regular confession and aren’t accountable.
There’s an old-fashioned word we don’t hear much in the church anymore: repent.
In American life, this kind of church discipline isn’t something we’re used to, but churches that don’t discipline their members really aren’t going to make it. The times I’ve grown spiritually have been when pastors or lay friends who were Christians called me to account and said, “You can’t do this. If your faith really means something to you, you’ve got to change, you’ve got to repent.”
That’s an old-fashioned word we don’t hear much in the church anymore: repent. But the Benedict Option is all about repentance, ongoing repentance. It’s about realizing that we live in exile.
Are there ways that we as American churches have to repent?
Probably the worst thing we have to repent of as American Christians is lukewarmness: thinking of our faith as just something there for psychological comfort and to give us a general sense that God smiles on our middle-class American way of life. You can see now why so many young people are leaving the church – they were never given solid food.
We in the conservative church also have to repent of worshiping the nation, of nationalism, and of worshiping, to some degree, the Republican Party. For much of my life as an adult Christian, I never really stopped to think about how much of what I thought was true about Christianity was so consonant with the Republican view of the world. It wasn’t until I had a child of my own that I began to think about the difference between what your generic Republican thought was the true and good way to live and the way that I as a Christian thought was the right way to live.
We have to repent of the politicization of church. Robert Putnam, in his book American Grace, found that, contrary to popular belief, the churches that are most politicized in their worship and sermonizing are progressive churches. So this is a problem for the whole church, not just the conservative churches. People on the left tend to focus on poverty, racism, and things like that, which are important. The conservatives tend to focus on abortion and sexuality. That’s important too. I don’t see many people in American Christianity doing a great job of integrating both. A friend of mine said the Democratic Party is a party of lust and the Republican Party is a party of greed, and both are deadly sins that Christians have to turn away from.
We also need to repent of ignorance – willful ignorance – of our past. At the start of modernity, the Enlightenment, we Westerners cut ourselves off from the Christian past and said, “We’re not fettered by any obligation to the past. We’re going to be the authors of our own future.” We don’t like to acknowledge that the past has claims on us because that would inhibit our individual freedom. This is crazy! When you start reading about the history of the church and what our brothers and sisters in the faith went through to hold on to the gospel, it is appalling that we just turn our backs on our patrimony like that.
That’s not to say that people in the past necessarily knew better than we do about all things; they didn’t. There was never a golden age. But for heaven’s sake, if we separate ourselves from our roots so thoroughly, we’ll be carried off down the stream. We won’t even know what it means to be a Christian anymore. That’s what we’re in danger of losing, the memory of what it has meant in the past to be a Christian. We need to hold on to that and steward it for our children and our children’s children. If we don’t have that sense, we’re going to be completely assimilated by modernity. That’s what’s happening right now to too many Christians.
You wrote recently: “Our first loyalty is to the church, not to American empire. I want to encourage and cultivate faithful Christian resistance.” That language is reminiscent of left-wing radicals such as Daniel Berrigan or Dorothy Day in their critique of American Christianity.
It is. I do not believe that political and theological conservatives have a monopoly on the truth. Look, I’m a conservative Christian. But we have been far too quick to think of the church as the Republican Party at prayer and to think of America as a new Israel. It’s just not true. I love this country, which has been a tremendous blessing to me, but it’s not a New Jerusalem. As Saint Augustine said, any peace we have today is going to be the peace of Babylon, of captivity. I don’t tell people not to be patriotic, but I do say, “Don’t confuse patriotism with nationalism. Always remember that our first loyalty is to God and to Jesus Christ.”
I was in New York on 9/11 – I was a columnist at the New York Post in downtown Manhattan when the towers fell. I became a vocal supporter of the Iraq War. At the time, I thought I was being very thoughtful, intelligent, and courageous, but in retrospect I realize I was just scared to death and was allowing myself to be manipulated by the government. We as the church have to be far more skeptical of what our government does.
What effect does the election of Donald Trump have on Christians’ public witness? Does it change anything for the Benedict Option?
I was not a Trump voter, or a Clinton voter, and was prepared to be part of the loyal opposition no matter which candidate won. I still am. What does Trump’s election change for the Benedict Option? Only this: I believe it gives us a bit more time to prepare – and, if he puts justices on the Supreme Court who value religious liberty, it gives us a little more space in which to prepare. But the idea that electing a Republican president, especially one as unchristian as Donald Trump, will arrest a cultural process of desacralization that has been underway for centuries – that’s madness! I fear that Christians who were coming to appreciate the perilous position of the church in post-Christian America may conclude that we can all stand down now, that the danger has passed. That would be incredibly foolish. It’s not simply the Democratic Party that threatens authentic Christianity. It’s modernity. The best we can expect of politics is for it to open a space for the church to do its work of conversion and culture-building. The Trump presidency may – may – solve certain immediate problems for the church, but it will certainly create new ones. Again, I say to my fellow Christians: do not take false hope from the machination of princes. Prepare.
Persecution Is Normal
In the last decade, more Christians may have been killed because of their faith than at any time since the sixteenth century. What is our responsibility to Christian brothers and sisters around the globe?
I asked a pastor who works with the persecuted church overseas the same question. He said that we Americans need to realize that what the persecuted church is suffering now has been the normative experience for most Christians through most of the life of the church, going back to the beginning; that what we’re experiencing now in the West, this period of relative peace and non-persecution, is actually unusual. Persecution is normal. If we’re not prepared to live that way if things turn bad in this country, then we’re not worthy of the gospel. So I think we should be as supportive of them as we possibly can, but we also need to let their example of courage inform the way we prepare for what may be coming in our country.
In what may be dark times ahead, where do you see signs of hope, and what should we focus on to keep the joy of the gospel?
In my book, I write about a Catholic community in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, called the Tipiloschi – Italian for “the usual suspects.” Although they go to the normal church, they also come together for communal meals, service projects, Bible study, communal prayer, and Mass every week. When I visited this community, I saw so much joy – not self-satisfied joy but creative joy. I met a couple of young men who had done prison time for minor offenses and now had been brought into the community, given work to do, and rehabilitated. I went to their school, and saw such a sense of confidence. It’s not a white-knuckle, we’re-so-afraid-of-the-world approach. Because they know who they are in Christ, they live with joy. When I see people like that, I realize that this is not just some pipe dream or abstract ideal. There are flesh-and-blood people living this out right now.
I asked Marco Sermarini, who leads the Tipiloschi community, “Do you ever worry about anything?” He said, “Oh yes, Rod, I lie in bed at night and I worry about what’s going to happen to my children and our community. But then I realize that our Lord came into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, not a thoroughbred, and that I just have to be a donkey for the Lord.” As long as we can be simple little donkeys, just plugging away doing the everyday ordinary things and sanctifying our everyday life, that’s where we will find our hope.
This autumn, a terrible earthquake in Italy leveled the basilica of Saint Benedict in Norcia, rendering the monastery uninhabitable. By the grace of God, a couple of smaller earthquakes earlier in the fall had caused the monks to move to tents on the hill overlooking the town. Because they heeded the warnings of those earlier tremors, they survived the big one that destroyed both their basilica and all the churches in town. Now, despite their present suffering, they will be present for the rebuilding and are a sign of God’s abiding presence among the people of Norcia.
The monks see a sign in all of this. So do I. Let those who have ears to hear hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Interview by Peter Mommsen on September 27, 2016 and November 9, 2016..
Photograph at the top of this article is by Pino D’Amico, of buildings in the town of Norcia, Italy, the birthplace of Saint Benedict, whose monastic communities kept Christian culture alive during the Dark Ages.