Rod Dreher talks about Benedictine spirituality, the need for shared liturgy to build unshakable beliefs, and how to break out of a consumerist mindset toward church.
Even if you’re fasting from social media this Lent, it’s doubtful you’re oblivious to the entrance of Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option given the controversy raging over it. Publicized as a warning of a coming Dark Age, The Benedict Option is a call for Christians to begin to build “parallel structures” and undergo “strategic withdrawal” while still serving those around them. Dreher is convinced that orthodox Christians are losing their voice in the public square. The beginnings of this Dark Age are reflected in the current culture of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (all God wants for us is to be nice and happy) and “liquid modernity,” where anything goes as long as it’s not the more challenging aspects of traditional Judeo-Christian ethics, particularly sexual ones.
Dreher includes chapters on the history of how the U.S. got to this point, the beauty of Benedictine spirituality, and descriptions of healthy community, as well as guidance on worship, work, family formation, Christian education, and prudent use of technology. He says that the current state of Christians in the U.S. is that we “are more formed by the culture than by the Bible or by the historical practices of the faith.” I’ve edited his interview for brevity and received his feedback before publication.
Why are so many Christians, particularly evangelicals disturbed by their fundamentalist background, rejecting your argument?
I think that the church is lying to itself in so many ways by saying if we only stay winsome, the world will like us, not like those mean fundamentalists—the world will like us and make a place for us. It’s just not true. We should be winsome and kind because that’s the right thing to do. It’s going to earn us any friends in the world. They don’t hate us because we’re mean: they hate us for what we believe.
Why a Benedictine spirituality?
I tell this story: I was in my early twenties, working out of college; I was in Baton Rouge, and I was feeling heavily drawn toward Catholicism. One of my colleagues at the newspaper said “Oh, I heard you’re interested in Catholicism. I’m a Catholic. I volunteer at the Missionaries of Charity soup kitchen downtown. Why don’t you come join me this Saturday and help me work there?”
Well, I thought that sounds like a very Catholic thing to do. This is Mother Teresa’s order and what a wonderful thing. I went down there, spent the afternoon scrubbing pots and peeling potatoes. When it was over with, I said, “That was good, but I’m really more of an intellectual and I would better spend my time reading books of theology instead of doing that.”
Thirteen or fourteen years later after I had been writing about the sex abuse scandal and my Catholic faith was in complete ruin, it occurred to me that if I had spent as much time, or even a fraction of the time, there in the soup kitchen with Catholics—other broken Catholics—working with my hands and doing something in community instead of set up inside my house—inside my head reading books—I might have a faith that would have been resilient enough to [have] withstood this terrible trial by fire that was the sex abuse scandal.
This is the wisdom the Benedictine monks teach. They’re all for theology, but if you read the rule of St. Benedict, it’s all about practice, spiritual disciplines, not for their own sake, but they help you die to yourself so that you can live in Christ, be remade in the form of Christ. That’s what a Benedictine spirituality really is a practical spirituality of everyday life, and it’s a spirituality that gathers what has been scattered and unites it, and tames the passions and focuses us around Christ. The monks will tell you all the service you do to the poor, all the prayer, all the Scripture study, it’s all in vain if it’s not leading you every day and every way to closer unity with Jesus Christ.
Why do we need liturgical worship in the Benedict Option?
I would first make a secular case for it. In the book I talk about this cultural anthropologist, Paul Connerton, who studied cultures who held onto their culture in the face of modernity. He found that there were a few factors in common. One of them is that they do have a sacred story that unites them and constitutes them as a people. We Christians certainly have that. It’s called the gospel. It’s called the Bible going back to the ancient Hebrews. Secondly, they celebrate this sacred story in a common ritual. Third, this ritual is seen as taking them out of time. There has to be something eternal about this ritual. Fourth, the ritual has to involve the body. He says that involving the body in this worship sediments the teaching, sediments the story, into their bones.
When I read that in preparing The Benedict Option, I thought this is what liturgy is. I have to say, I’ve been an Orthodox Christian for ten years now, and I‘ve seen the way it’s affected me in my own spirituality. The liturgy is something that Orthodox Christians really do think takes us outside of time. The way that we use so many prostrations and crossings and candles and icons—none of these things are idolatrous—they are all things that point us to Christ and form us in his image, if we take them rightly.
Some of my friends who are evangelical talk about how they don’t get anything out of church. To me that is an orientation towards worship that is consumeristic. It’s transactional. It’s only useful if it’s meeting my needs. I think a better way and a more truthful and authentically Christian way to think about worship is: what is the worship doing to us, not for us? Is it reforming us in Christ, taking us out of ourselves and our own passions of the moment and introducing us to the eternal?
It’s obvious in your book that you talked with a wide variety of Christians while writing it. Why is that?
I don’t’ believe that any of us Christians have all the answers. Let me make clear, I believe that the Orthodox Church is the fullest expression of Christianity, but at the same time, I know from my experience in Catholicism that we Orthodox have a lot to learn from the Catholics and vice versa. Similarly, evangelicals do things much better than we do in some ways. I think I can be a more faithful Orthodox Christian if I pay attention to the lives and the actions and the work of my Evangelical and Catholic brothers and sisters.
We’re all in this together. The days that are to come, we small o orthodox Christians, as I like to call us, who believe in the historical Christian faith, are going to be coming under very extraordinary pressure within our own churches and the public square. Where are we going to turn for help? Where are we going to turn for sustenance? Where are we going to turn for comfort when we’ve been thrown out? We’re not going to be able to do this solely within our own traditions.
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.