David Brooks at the NYTimes called The Benedict Option “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” Over at The Week, Damon Linker wrote that The Benedict Option “may be the most important statement of its kind since Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square, the 1984 book that Dreher’s implicitly seeks to supplant.”
The plethora of reviews written for The Benedict Option (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and probably many more) as well as the various discussions and controversies surrounding the book prove just how discussed The Benedict Option is. The internet, it seems, is alive with the sound of The Benedict Option.
For my part, I believe that Rod Dreher has correctly diagnosed our times but has prescribed the wrong medicine. Instead of retreating into Christian communities to create a Christian cultural witness, we need to return to a New Testament Gospel witness. But before I get to that, let’s start with what Dreher gets right.
A Culture of Antagonism
The reason why The Benedict Option has influenced so many is at least partly because Rod Dreher has hit a chord with conservatives, who feel that they are losing or have lost the culture war. The West is no longer “Christian,” and its values have strayed away from what Christians have traditionally called good (cf. Isa 5:20).
In Canada—my home country—, the picture is particularly stark. Canadians have shifted from traditionally held values to progressive views about sexual identity, the family, death, and religious education:
Bill C-16 promises to “add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination” in Canada. If passed, the enactment will amend the criminal code of Canada, so that hate propaganda charges can apply to those who speak against a person(s) on the basis of that person’s gender identity. As Christians, we should of course avoid hate speech and love all people (Rom 5:8).
But the concern here is how the courts might construe hate propaganda, and whether or not holding to traditional Christian beliefs about gender might be construed as hate propaganda in the future. In any case, no matter if Bill C-16 passes or not, it has demonstrated how out-of-step Christianity is with Canadian values.
Bill 28 passed into law in Ontario in 2016. According to ARPA Canada: “Bill 28, the Orwellian “All Families Are Equal Act”, removes the term “mother” and “father” from all Ontario law, to be replaced with “parent”. The bill also eliminates the basic assumption of Ontario law that a child has no more than two parents. It eradicates the traditional categories of natural or adoptive parents and removes all references to persons being the “natural parents” of a child and to persons being related “by blood”. The French version replaces uses of the term “parent de sang” (parent of blood) with “parent de naissance” (parent of birth).” In Ontario, we no longer have mothers and fathers by law (just parents), and we can have up to four parents for a child (and none of whom have to be the biological parents).
The obvious problems for Christians in Ontario is that Christians believe that fathers and mothers exist and that they are male and female. Christians also believe that parents should be married and—in non-adoptive cases—be the biological parents of the child. Additionally, Christians generally affirm that two parents and not four suffice (the children of Israel had four biological mothers and one father).
Bill C-14 passed into last year, bringing Physician Assisted Dying (PAD) into law. At least four concerns comes to mind here. First, PAD may compel medical professionals to sign a document or to administer fatal drugs to a patient, which will go against the conscience of Christian medical professionals (thou shall not murder). Second, PAD may permit the suicide of those who are suffering greatly but have not heard the Gospel. The latter suffering (after death) may be worse than the former (in life), and this is not compassionate. Third, PAD may (down the line) expand the criteria for who might be eligible for PAD. This opens up the door for those suffering with psychological disorders from ending their life. Of course, this latter concern is only imagined and not real but see here and here. Fourth, if Canadian Christians will not participate in PAD, they may be barred from medical professions, an eventuality that Rod Dreher notes in his The Benedict Option (well, he makes the point that Christians may be black-listed from certain professions).
The British Columbia Law Society had barred Trinity Western University graduates from practicing law due to the school’s Evangelical convictions. Of course, the ruling was overturned sometime after that. But the battle is far from over. The Ontario Court of Appeal sided with the B.C. Law Society against TWU, and the case will likely end up in the Supreme Court. The point is that not only will medical professionals in Canada be kicking against the goads of culture but so also will be Canadian legal professionals who are trained at an Christian institution. As it stands, A Christian cannot attend a Christian law school and practice law in every province of Canada.
Canadian Christians have entered into a culture of antagonism which does not positively regard Christian convictions. The BenOpt’s argument about an antagonistic culture makes much better sense in Canada than it does in, say, Alabama.
At the same time, the USA is not far behind Canada. The recent presidential election in the USA might illustrate that ethical issues are less important to Evangelicals than economic gain. If this suggestion turns to be true, then it doesn’t bode well for the American republic: “… [Thomas] Jefferson feared that ‘our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless.’ If people forgot themselves ‘in the sole faculty of making money,’ he said, the future of the republic was bleak and tyranny would not be far away” (Bellah, 1985: 31). Jefferson’s prediction about the American republic may be coming true, although only time will tell the full tale.
With society turned against Christian virtues, what options do believers have?
The Other Options
It turns out that believers have other alternatives to the BenOpt. Here are a few:
The Buckley Option (Andrew T. Walker): The Buckley options is a non-monastic Roman Catholic option, named after William F. Buckley, Jr. This option seems to encourage public and political engagement as well as a form of ecumenism with other Christian movements: “The Buckley Option will cherish the primacy of moral virtue and freedom lived out in the public square.” The weirdest part of the Buckley Option has nothing to do with the Option itself but the author. Andrew Walker is a Southern Baptist advocating emulating a Roman Catholic social conservative! In any case, the BucOpt seems to place its faith in the reformation of the American Empire, not in cultivating a holy and evangelistic life.
The Franciscan Option (Timothy George): Timothy George advocates for a Franciscan Option that aims to preach the Gospel wherever Christians go and to ecumenically unite Christians around a common mission, citing John 17 as a Biblical justification for such a united movement. The FranOpt helpfully points to an evangelist focus, but I wonder how George thinks Protestants and Roman Catholics can work together when we still cannot agree on the content of the Gospel!
The Kuyper Option (Andrew Walker): Andrew Walker subscribes to “the Transformationalist paradigm.”Transformationalists insist,” writes Walker, “upon scaling the walls of every sector of culture in order to see Christ’s Lordship ultimately stamped upon it.” Walker sees the Kuyper Option as somehow transforming the culture around us, which depends on its Christian heritage. Walker’s article never mentions the word “Gospel” or “Evangelism,” except when those terms describe a Christian organization. I am sure that Walker believes the Gospel is important, as he states: “Transformationalism is firmly dedicated to the proposition that conversionary Christianity offers the best and lasting hope for building humane societies.” At the same time, I am skeptical of an option that seeks to transform society without mentioning words like “Gospel,” “Evangelism,” “Jesus,” etc. As a point of interest, Walker is a Southern Baptist.
The Wilberforce Option (Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner): Christianity Today’s pay-wall blocked me from reading this article. I am going to go out on a limb and guess that the Wilberforce option means that we enact social good through any means possible. But I won’t criticize what I cannot read.
The Paleo-Baptist Option (Nathan A. Finn): One highlight of the PalBapOpt is that it highlights the need for evangelism and missions in line with men like “Daniel Taylor, Andrew Fuller, and William Carey.” The broadly negative part of the PalBapOpt is its call to ecumenism of the trenches. I am all for ecumenism, when we can agree on the Gospel. But until then, I am remain skeptical of the venture, although I get the appeal of the Colson’s ecumenism of the trenches. If I see someone in need of food and a Roman Catholic person beside me has lunch and I have dinner, then lets relieve this person’s suffering together; but we won’t be co-pastoring a church any time soon.
The Augustinian Option (James Smith): James Smith proposes the Augustinian Call, which seems to mean that Christians should be faithful within culture and not retreat from it. Smith sees the BenOpt as basically fundamentalism without one key tenet: “In the end, my worry is that what you get in Dreher is fundamentalism minus the rapture.”
The Anglican Option (Lee Nelson): Nelson’s Anglican Option is basically embodying the Anglican identity. One aspect of this option I heartedly applaud: the AngOpt possesses “[a]n insistence on the unity of the Church Militant, priest and people together carrying out the mission of the Church.” In other words, priest and people carry out the mission of the church, which I would hope involves Matthew 28’s Great Commission!
What these various options show is that Dreher has a struck a nerve in the consciousness of Christians from various traditions. They feel the same pressure that Dreher narrates. But shockingly no option that I have yet seen has proposed a Bible-saturated, Jesus-preaching, Gospel option. As Nathan Finn notes, “A commitment to mission seems to be a serious lacuna in the Benedict Option as presently conceived.” I would suggest that the same is true when it comes to the mission of the Gospel, to some degree, in the options that I have surveyed above.
Note: I have no doubt that many of the authors above love the Lord and would vigorously preach the Gospel. Given another context, I bet they would affirm what I am about to propose. I am criticizing their articles, which I fully admit are limited by their intent and by their relative shortness. I get it. Charity needs to lead the day. But I still want to provide a clear option, which I think the Bible itself outlines for us. It is what I call “The Gospel Option.”
The Gospel Option
The Gospel Option takes into account that Christians live in an antagonistic culture, but it encourages believers to trust fully the Triune God. The Father sent the Son into the world for a mission that the Son bequeathed to his body, the church. The Father and Son empower the church to accomplish the Son’s mission by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel Option fully embraces the Triune God’s mission and takes its cue from Jesus’ words in the following ways.
First, Jesus assumes that believers will encounter hostility in their mission. Don’t take my word for it:
Matt. 5:11: Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Matt. 5:44: But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Matt. 10:23: When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (All from ESV with minor modifications)
We live in a hostile culture, and that is to be expected.
Second, Jesus created the church and no earthly power shall ever overcome it. Don’t take my word for it:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16:18–19).
Believers may loss economic opportunities, they may be marginalized, and they may even loss property and their lives due to their faith. But Jesus is building his church in the midst of the antagonistic culture and not even hell’s armies can overcome it. It is as if the church is saying: “Satan, unleash your attacks against us. We will continue growing. We have the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
Third, Jesus commissioned the church to preach the Gospel to all nations and his presence continues with us. Listen to Matthew 28:18–20:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The mission of the church is not to retreat and create a Christian counter-culture, although that will happen in local churches; the mission of the church is not to take over the culture, although it is not wrong for Christians to work in government and so forth; rather, the mission of the church is (1) to disciple, (2) baptize, and (3) teach people Jesus’ words. Central to Jesus’ ministry of the word is this teaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). So we are on good grounds to see the Gospel as central to our mission on earth.
Note also that Jesus says “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” I suspect, although I cannot prove from this passage (but I could argue so from other places like John’s Gospel), that Jesus’ presence is felt through his bestowal of the Holy Spirit on to the church. So the Father sent the Son who in turn has sent the Church along with his Spirit.
As believers, I am not sure we have any other option but the Gospel Option. We must plant or cultivate churches. We must disciple believers. We must baptize. We must preach Christ. We must suffer when necessary, and we must trust that the gates of hell will never topple the believing church.
Let’s put Christ and his word at the centre of our response to an antagonistic culture. And let’s pray that we will turn the earthly city upside down by the life-changing message of the Gospel (cf. Acts 17:6).